Buzzwords and catchphrases often surface in our culture. Many come from landmark news events, and, before you know it, that term is everywhere and firmly embedded in our collective conscience. Why do they strike such a chord?
If there was a secret sauce to creating one of these memorable expressions, we’d all be copywriters. Let’s look at some from the world of news (and we’ll also grade them on their staying power in a truly arbitrary manner), to see if we can figure out why we still remember these landmark sayings.
This is quite possibly the mother of all news buzzwords. It’s used in popular culture to denote any type of scandal, big or small. Did someone steal your donut from the break room? Check to see who has sprinkles on their shirt because it’s donut-gate.
The suffix was extracted from the Watergate scandal that took down the Nixon White House. The earliest recorded example of the use of -gate was in 1973, only one year after the start of the Watergate scandal. The humor magazine National Lampoon riffed: “‘There have been persistent rumors in Russia of a vast scandal … Implicated in ‘the Volgagate’ are a group of liberal officials.” Political columnist William Safire (also a former Nixon speechwriter) then took the suffix and ran with it (coining many more -gate words).
So, how would we use this today? The Trump administration has faced “Russiagate,” showing its continued political use. In 2018, in a more ridiculous instance, “Bitegate” named the controversy that sparked after actor Tiffany Haddish claimed she saw another performer bite Beyoncé’s face at a party.
Staying power (on a scale from 1–10): 10. We’ll see this one forever. If someone sticks “-gate” on the end of any word, look for it on CNN. (Want to see some other famous -gate scandals? Check out The Best (And Worst) Scandal-Gates.
2. “I am not a crook”
Five men burgled (or bungled, take your pick) the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Party in Washington D.C. in June of 1972. It’s Watergate again.
Afterward, in a memorable November 1973 speech, President Nixon decided he wanted to set the record straight. “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,” he said in an Orlando news conference (yep, he was at Disney World). “Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” NPR’s Arun Rath said in 2013, “Five short words that you won’t find on the National Mall inscribed in marble. But, you might say they’re etched into the country’s memory.”
Staying Power: 3. This one is relegated to YouTube and the archives of network news.The phrase is too exclusive to Nixon himself to be applicable in many other situations. But, whenever the topic of Nixon comes up, it’s sure to show up in parody.
3. “Wardrobe malfunction”
Where were you February 1st, 2004? The day the world (momentarily) stopped turning. If Twitter had been around, it would’ve simply melted. That’s when Justin Timberlake accidentally tore off part of Janet Jackson’s costume during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show … exposing her breast. Timberlake thereafter issued this mea culpa: “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl.”
Staying power: 10. Whenever a supermodel slips on the runway and her costume, er, rearranges itself, we’re going to hear this one. It’s so generically unspecific that it works in all sartorial slip-up (or slip-out) occasions.
4. “Houston, we have a problem”
This phrase refers to the moment when Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert realized they weren’t going to the moon after all in the 1970 mission (except he originally said “OK, Houston, we’ve had a problem here”).
Staying power: 10. Whenever there’s a big problem, you’re apt to hear this one. You don’t need to be in or connected to Houston to use it, either.
5. “One small step for man . . . “
NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. (Or did he say “one small step for a man”? Theories abound.)
How did Armstrong come up with such a historical sentence? ABC News says he once told reporters he didn’t come up with the line until after the Eagle had landed on the moon. However, they also cite a BBC documentary that apparently revealed Armstrong shared the line with his younger brother months prior to the flight while they were playing the board game Risk.
Staying Power: 4. It was a one-time only phrase that has resonated throughout history. Only one person will ever be first on the moon, and Neil Armstrong got the gig. These days, it’s often used to mock small achievements. But, it should probably be amended to be “one small step for a person” (i.e., genderless).
6. “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
“I am a Berliner.” President John F. Kennedy delivered those powerful words in an emotionally-charged in West Berlin on June 26, 1963. The Cold War was still quite chilly, and Kennedy deplored the concrete wall that divided East Berlin from its West counterpart. Former California and current Berlin resident Aimee M. told Dictionary.com: “It probably has more resonance in the US, honestly.” And, contrary to urban legend, Kennedy did not flub his German grammar and say, “I’m a doughnut,” in reference to a Berliner doughnut.
Staying Power: 3. Another phrase that’s relegated to the history archives, yet its delivery at the pinnacle of Cold War tensions cannot be understated.
7. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Sticking with the Berlin Wall: Its construction began in 1961, was attacked by Kennedy in 1963, and now President Ronald Reagan was taking his turn on June 12, 1987. He was exhorting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to take down the massive, dated symbol of oppression.
At the time, the speech didn’t move the needle all that much. In June 2017, The Washington Post reflected: “What is today often referred to as perhaps Reagan’s most powerful one-liner was almost completely ignored. The speech didn’t make many front pages back home.'”
Staying Power: 2. As a snapshot of late 1980s global power-politics, it completely rocks, but it doesn’t see many opportunities for usage today.
8. “I have a dream”
These four words—about his profound vision of racial equality—were powerfully delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 . . . just a couple of months after President Kennedy’s Berlin speech.
For Time, Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer Jon Meacham noted in 2013: “With a single phrase, Martin Luther King Jr. joined Jefferson and Lincoln in the ranks of men who’ve shaped modern America.”
Staying power: Off the charts. The societal impact of these words simply cannot be measured by any means. A defining moment in American history. Many people continue to use the phrase by actually quoting the speech itself.
9. “Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
Sportscaster Al Michaels made that call on February 22, 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey match at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The New York Post crowned it the best sports call ever, and Sports Illustrated hailed it as the 20th-century’s top sports moment.
In a nutshell, the powerful Soviet Union hockey team included pro players and had won the gold in five of the previous six Winter Olympics. (A classic David-and-Goliath match, and a fitting metaphor for the Cold War.) The US underdog was comprised of amateurs, but it turned out to be an upset for the ages: they went go on to capture the gold … miraculously.
Staying power: 3. Anyone who was watching the Olympics will remember that moment forever. Try to watch that clip and not get a lump in your throat as the ragtag Americans celebrate on the ice. This one still may be used during a miraculous sports play.
10. “Go at throttle up”
January 28th, 1986. Four words that would sadly define the untimely fate of the Challenger space shuttle. The shuttle exploded a mere 73 seconds into its flight. “Roger, go at throttle up” would be the last words we would hear from Commander Dick Scobee and the rest of the seven-person crew.
Staying power: 1. The visual impact of the explosion was profound for the live TV audience; an emotional punch to the gut, and space crews still hold their breaths when it’s during launches.