March 13, 2005

Rats off to ya!

In today's NYT, Dave Itzkoff has an article on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. If you haven't heard of this late-night collection of idiosyncratic animations, there are two reasons why you might want to check it out. The first reason is demographic:

When Nielsen begins tracking the block's ratings separately from Cartoon Network's daytime numbers at the end of this month, Turner Broadcasting expects "Adult Swim" to be the top-rated basic cable network among 12-to 34-year-old males.

The second reason, of course, is linguistic.

Itzkoff mentions in passing that the creators of one Adult Swim cartoon are consciously setting out to create catchphrases that will bond the audience to the show and to one another. Fair enough -- this mechanism, whether conscious or not, has worked for entertainers from Shakespeare to Matt Groening. But there's something new this time: it seems that these catchphrases are meaningless to start with, gaining significance only from their role in the show and its subculture. At least that's how Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim talk about a phrase promoted in their new series Tom Goes to the Mayor:

The playful visuals of "Tom Goes to the Mayor" are matched by its idiosyncratic sense of humor, one in which a meaningless catchphrase like "rats off to ya!" (a caption from a T-shirt that Tom fruitlessly tried to market) can form the basis for a secret language shared by fans of the show.

"There's no reason for anyone to be saying that," Mr. Wareheim said. "There's no basis for it at all. But people find little sayings like that, and it just takes over their lives. It becomes special to them because it's theirs."

Well, it worked for Monty Python and Star Trek, not to speak of various advertisers and academics too numerous to mention, even if it's traditional to start with a phrase that means something in its original context. But I'm not sure that this one is going to make the grade. A Google search for {"rats off to ya"} produces only 195 hits. Compared to 27,800 for {"I for one welcome"}, or 4,570 for {" No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"}, this suggests that relatively few lives have been taken over by TGTTM so far (though in fairness the episode only aired 12/19/2004). There seems to be some other evidence of lack of TGTTM life-taking-overness as well.

Perhaps you need something more than catchphrases? Or maybe it works better to start with the traditional sort of catchphrase, which functions as an ordinary piece of language in its original context, before being generalized by cultural resonance? I'm not sure about all that, but I can confidently tell you that we haven't heard the last from the catchphrase industry.

[Update: Tim May points out that { "nobody expects the spanish inquisition"} gets "an even more impressive ~14,600" Google hits.]

[Update #2: and of course the disjunction of both patterns gets more hits yet, not to speak of various generalizations of the pattern, as various other readers have written to explain. Here's a table of some additional results:

Search string
"no one expects the Spanish Inquisition"
"nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition"
"nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" OR "no one expects the Spanish Inquisition"
"expects the Spanish Inquisition"



Posted by Mark Liberman at March 13, 2005 06:59 AM