Breaking Bad? Word Stories Behind Four Popular TV Shows 


Television has a habit of repurposing and repackaging common sayings into names of shows, from Three’s Company to Orange Is the New Black, and it’s easy to understand why: idioms are packed with rich associations that resonate instantly with viewers, and when applied to titles of the small screen, they quickly communicate the sensibilities of the shows they name. This year’s Emmy roster was rife with familiar expressions borrowed from the wild. Today we’re going to take a look at how some of these idiomatic phrases were used before we came to associate them with binge-watching and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and explore the insights they offer about these critically acclaimed shows.

Breaking Bad
Break the ice means “start conversation,” break bread means “share food,” break a heart means “cause great sorrow,” and break a story means “publish it first.” But what does breaking bad mean? The mastermind behind Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, chose this title because he thought the phrase was widely used to mean “raising hell.” The Dictionary of American Slang notes break bad as a Southern regionalism dating back to the 1970s that means “to become hostile and menacing.” Time magazine recently unearthed an example from 1919 with less violent undertones meaning “to go bad.” The senses seem to be fleeting or transitory, implying a sudden and temporary shift into darkness, but the show’s plot, which chronicles the gradual transformation of a family-man-turned-drug-kingpin, brings to mind other uses of the word break, such as breaking a horse, in which an animal is trained into a certain kind of behavior.

Mad Men
Many viewers of Mad Men might appreciate the show’s title because it invites speculation about the sanity of its characters and about the mores of an industry in its heyday. Of course it also sounds like “ad men,” which is fun. Lesser known is the fact that the phrase is a shortened version of the term Madison Avenue men, referencing the ad executives of that street, which emerged as the hub of the advertising industry in the 1920s. Madison Avenue, along with New York landmark Madison Square, was named after the fourth president of the United States and father of the constitution, James Madison. There’s no telling what President Madison would have thought of Don Draper and his coterie.

Arrested Development
Prior to the Bluth family’s debut in 2003, the phrase arrested development most often referred to an abnormal state in which development has stopped prematurely, often in the context of psychology or evolutionary biology. Charles Darwin used it in his book Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex: “Arrested development differs from arrested growth, as parts in the former state still continue to grow, whilst still retaining their early condition.” In the television series, the phrase references both abrupt halting of the family business due to allegations of fraud and the stunted maturity levels of the characters. The abrupt cancellation of the show in 2006 lends the title a self-referential sense as well. Fortunately for fans, development of this show has been resumed on Netflix.

House of Cards
The phrase house of cards is commonly used to refer to a structure or plan that is insubstantial and subject to imminent collapse, as a structure made by balancing cards against each other. Stonehenge is said to be made with “house of cards architecture” because it relies on balance and friction to stay upright. The main character of the television show House of Cards, Frank Underwood, also relies on balance and friction in his wildly intricate scheme to gain political power. The breadth of Frank’s machinations echo an insight from professional card stacker Bryan Berg, whose structures have been tested to support more than 660 pounds per square foot: the more cards placed on a tower, the stronger it becomes.

What are your favorite television shows with idiomatic titles?

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