Galloway on Film: How Shakespeare Taught Me the Movie Business Is Dying
A vibrant, creative culture is reflected in its language, but the movies haven't coined many new words lately and that suggests an industry in decline.
In the late 16th century, a leather worker’s son named William Shakespeare sat at his wooden table, pulled out his paper and quill, and embarked on one of the few plays he ever wrote that was not significantly ripped off from other material — a “reimagining,” as we’d say in Hollywood today. Its title was The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
Among the play’s singular contributions were a host of words and expressions that nobody had ever heard of, or at least put onstage before then. Besmirched. Barefaced. Buzzer. Rant. Pander. None of them would be familiar to us without Shakespeare.
They were the tip of a logorrheic iceberg. Other words he patented or promoted included advertising, addiction, laughable, lonely, madcap and monumental — and that doesn’t include his rich broth of phrases. “All that glitters” would not be gold without him. You might not be living such a “charmed life.” Your boss wouldn’t be the “devil incarnate.” And, if not for Shakespeare, I’d never try to get this article written “in one fell swoop” — or would know it’s a “foregone conclusion” that I won’t.
Jerry Brown would not have been nicknamed Governor “Moonbeam”; Page Six would have no gossip to monger; and some of this publication’s most eminent writers would be disheartened as well as discontented if Shakespeare hadn’t also invented the word critic.
No English-language writer has ever coined the sheer number of words and terms as Shakespeare — 1,700 in all, out of a total output of 17,245 words. Some of those words went out of fashion for centuries only to then come back into vogue. Think about Facebook without friended.
I mention this not just because it’s fun to revel in Shakespeare’s language, but also because it opens a window onto something surprising about the movie business today.
For the past couple of decades, it’s failed to create any meaningful new words. I don’t mean that film dialogue hasn’t echoed the language of society at large; I mean there’s been almost no new vocabulary that applies purely and solely to how we talk about film.
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In the early history of film, a dictionary’s worth of words bubbled out of Hollywood, all of which have become linguistic staples.
Cut. Edit. Fade. Dissolve. Close-up. Splice. Talkie. Studio. Screenplay. Each of them emerged in the second and third decades of the 20th century, never having been used before, or else used only in a somewhat different sense. They defined the grammar of a brand new medium, along with the art, technology and institutions that sprang up around it.
In the decades that followed, as the industry matured, other words emerged. Splitscreen. Widescreen. Zoom. 3D. Blockbuster. None were quite as fundamental as those early, primal terms, but once the basic language of film was developed, it would have taken an earthquake to add more. (In fact, an earthquake did add more: Remember Earthquake and Sensurround, anyone?)
But the last words I can think of that truly gained traction in the business were franchise and tent-pole, and both came into wide usage at the end of the 20th century.
That means it’s been almost two decades since any substantial words were added to the dozens we still use every day when talking about film. Even the synonyms for the word film haven’t changed. We have picture and movie (talkie and flick have dropped out of usage), but you’d think by now Hollywood would have come up with as many variants as the Eskimos have for snow.
Even television, a medium so closely related to film, has been a steady spigot for words. Think bingeing, streaming, cord-cutting, over-the-top — add them all up and they won’t use much ink in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but at least they’ll get a mention.
The dearth of linguistic invention in film is all the more striking when you contrast it to the Internet, where new language streams forth on an almost daily basis, as if from some subterranean well that never runs dry. The internet is branding fresh words and terms faster than at any point in history.
Online. Offline. Texting. Sexting. Selfie. Belfie. We use some of these words more than hello and goodbye.
Words and terms pop up so rapidly you can barely keep up. I’m sure I’m not alone in being baffled when I see any of the following: FOMO (fear of missing out). ICYMI (in case you missed it). NSFW (not safe for work). IRL (in real life). YOLO (you only live once).
Dozens more words have entered common usage: Hashtags and haters, photo-bombing and photo-shopping, clicks and click-bait,memes and emojis. What would the world be like without them?
These aren’t merely technical terms that live in an intellectual penumbra, traded like baseball cards by scholars in the netherworld of academia. They define the way we live today.
How could I write this article without Google and the Internet? How could you tweet and help it go viral without, well, tweet and viral?
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The late 16th century was a time of extraordinary upheaval. England had broken with the Vatican to create its own new church and religion; it was sending explorers out to discover a brave new world that nobody knew existed; and it was creating a global empire in a struggle for power with the other hegemonies of Europe.
All that turbulence and the creativity that went with it was reflected in language — and not just Shakespeare’s, but also his contemporaries’. Writers such as Ben Jonson and John Donne added hundreds of words to the culture.
Other periods of radical change have always done the same. Throughout history, great eras have produced great new language. You can almost measure how much change is going on by how much vocabulary is being created.
The Industrial Revolution gave us everything from acne to ambulance, psychiatry to psychosis, pasta to pasteurize. World War I added lousy and crummy, snapshot and dud, shrapnel and shell shock.
Which brings us back to film. If great times do indeed spawn a great vocabulary, where does that leave the movie business?
We’re going through arguably one of the most tumultuous eras in many centuries. The speed of transformation is astonishing. And yet you’d hardly know it from the language of film, and you wouldn’t get a much better sense from the language of TV. Prime time. Anchor. Ratings. Demo. Series. Mini-series. TV movie. Late-night. Cable. Feature film. Premiere. Distribution. Exhibition. Gross. These words date back decades.
Whatever new buzzwords have come into play relate mainly to the means of delivery rather than the content. Sure, if you search hard enough, you can find a few new-ish terms. Fan-boy is pretty recent; so is day-and-date. But the hardcore language of film hasn’t budged.
It’s ironic that an industry led by the most literate people ever to have worked in it is going through a drought of words, while the uneducated immigrants who founded the business gave us an endless stream of verbal invention.
A revolution in art necessitated a revolution in language.
The words prove that the revolution is long gone.
For more Galloway on Film, please check out the archive.