Saturday, May 8, 2010

Modern Family: A Treasure Trove of Linguistic Anomalies

The ABC show Modern Family is not only fun to watch but is also fun to think about ways we can use English words. This past Wednesday (5/5/10), the episode that aired (titled "Airport") had two such instances of word play that left me literally laughing out loud (or should I say "ROFL"?).

Phil, one of the characters in the show, is a real estate agent and is helping his brother-in-law break into his own home after leaving his house keys with his partner at the airport. Phil faces the camera and says:

The average burglar breaks in and leaves all these clues behind. Not me. I'm completely clueless.

Obviously, most of us turn to the interpretation of clue to mean 'idea' so that clueless means 'lost' or 'confused.' However, Phil's play on words turns clueless into a new meaning of 'without physical clues (or without leaving physical clues behind)'.

That one line is enough to make me love that episode. Later on in the episode, Jay (Phil's father-in-law) is telling his grandson to sit down. His grandson falls into a chair and lands on Jay's Kindle, which prompted this reaction from Jay:

Ooh, ooh, my Ludlums!

Prior to this incident, we learned that Jay had loaded 8 books by Ludlum onto his "reading device", and he was looking forward to spending some quality time reading those books on his vacation. So when his grandson broke his Kindle, he voiced his concern over losing the ability to read the books by Ludlum; instead of using a longer phrase to describe that, though, he substitutes the author's name for the books (i.e., he uses metonymy).

What are some of your favorite instances of word play in a movie, TV show, or book?


  1. Arrested Development is full of word play. Tobias is the worst, too. He got a job as an understudy for the Blue Man Group and, one episode, after painting himself, he said "I blue myself." He's also an Analyst and Therapist, and his business card reads "Analrapist," /ənælrəpɪst/. There are too many quotes to put here, but here's the IMDb page of quotes, full of word play:

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  3. You're right--there are some pretty good ones on there. So far, my favorite is the mistaken Spanish "como" for the English "coma." Classic.

  4. Hi,

    I don't have any particular word play from films or shows to contribute with right now but I have a question.

    I live in Sweden and this sort of playing with words is called humour of Gothenburg (humour as in comedy, Gothenburg is a west coast city of Sweden ). People from this town is knowned to come up with loads of funny things like this. They don't lend themselves to translation though. My question is: is there any particular city or area in US connected to this sort of word plays?

    Kind regards and thanks for a great blog/
    Elin Almér (Ph D student in LInguistics)

  5. Hello Elin,

    How fascinating to have a type of humor named after a city! I don't know of any area/city connected with word play or other types of humor in the US; I asked around, and no one else could come up with anything similar, either. In the US, we tend to focus a lot on word choice and accent when talking about the language usage of particular areas but not about more general things like *how* regional areas use language. If I ever hear someone comparing a particular type of language use to a region, I will let you know.

    Thank you for reading the blog and commenting. While the posts will slow down during the summer months, I am hoping to be back full steam for the fall semester. I hope you stick around and leave more interesting questions/comments!


  6. Thanks for asking around! I'll do the same concering European countries (when on conference and such)!

    Have a nice summer!