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The Greatest Literary Catchphrases

Language is a fluid, ever-evolving thing. There are a few words we could do without, but many catchphrases have stuck with us through the decades — some more stubborn than others. Those that have their roots in literature, or those at least popularized by books, seem to have the most staying power. The printed catchphrase feels more practical, timeless, and stalwart than those words echoing in movie houses — and literary dialogue is often the backbone of cinema scripts in our adaptation-heavy culture. We took a glance back at several catchphrases from the world of literature that have made their way into our vernacular and others that are memorable for their context and poetry. We hope you’ll continue adding to the list, below.

christmas

“Bah! Humbug!”

Our inspiration for this list of literary catchphrases comes from the miserly Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. ‘Tis the season to adopt the cold-hearted character’s line while Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” bores its way deeper into our skulls and news reports of people fighting over electronics and toys make us weary.

gatsby

“Old sport.”

Recently, Baz Luhrmann went heavy on the “Old sport” in his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby adopted the phrase to impress his wealth and status upon others. It has since become an ironical term of endearment in our culture, usually uttered by people who enjoy annoying others with terrible, fake accents.

1984

“Big Brother is watching you.”

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, contained this prescient phrase that is frighteningly relevant in our era of secret government surveillance.

clockwork

“The old ultra-violence.”

Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella, A Clockwork Orange, popularized the author’s fictional dialect (Nadsat). Burgess hoped slang terms like “ultra-violence” would “muffle the raw response we expect from pornography.”

slaughterhouse

“So it goes.”

Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, contains the phrase, “So it goes,” over 100 times. That’s a whole lot of fatalism.

potter

“Constant vigilance!”

Every modern epic needs an inspiring catchphrase that harkens back to literature’s classic mythological heroes on a dangerous quest.

merchant

“All that glitters is not gold.”

When surveying the number of literary catchphrases that came from Shakespeare, we could have written a book (and many people have). Since we’re feeling festive, we went with the line that glitters — or does it? The prolific Bard introduced thousands of words and phrases into the English language, and each one demonstrates the wit and wisdom we associate with the wordsmith.

lys

“Can’t live with them, or without them.”

Aristophanes was referring to women in this bit of dialogue from the play Lysistrata, but we all know the age-old adage is a bunch of bull.

catch

“Catch-22.”

A paradox, wrapped in satire, wrapped in further contradiction, wrapped in a darkly comedic punchline.

alice

“Begin at the beginning.”

Nonsense wordplay that resurfaced in Aldous Huxley’s prophetic satire about the world we live in, Brave New World.

heart

“The horror! The horror!”

An expression of anguish over widespread hypocrisy, malevolence, moral ambiguity, and the near-absurdity of the situation that currently resembles something one would read in a Joss Whedon script.

longfellow

“Ships that pass in the night.”

An achingly romantic and tearful sentiment since adopted by every modern troubadour.

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