Television has a habit of repurposing and repackaging common sayings into names of shows, from Breaking Bad to Six Feet Under, 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.
Take a look at how some of these idiomatic phrases were used before we came to associate them with binge-watching.
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 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.
Saved by the Bell
These days we associate Saved by the Bell with Lisa Turtle, Zack Morris, and Screech. But before the show hit NBC in the late 1980s, saved by the bell typically referred to “a boxer being saved from a knockout by the signal that the round had ended.” That signal? A bell of course!
The phrase can also be more figurative, referring to a person being spared from anticipated trouble by some extraneous event. As with many idioms, just when it entered the lexicon is unclear, but let’s just say it was before the Bayside gang was even born!
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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 though.
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 the abrupt halting of the family business due to allegations of fraud and the stunted maturity levels of the characters. The abrupt cancelation of the show in 2006 lends the title a self-referential sense as well. Fortunately for fans, development of this show 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 initial main character of the show House of Cards—Frank Underwood—also relies on balance and friction in his wildly intricate scheme to gain political power.
Six Feet Under
Before it was a hit HBO show about a family of funeral directors, saying something—or more likely someone—was six feet under meant they were “dead and buried.” Fitting, right?
The expression alludes to the depth of a grave, which is traditionally about six feet deep in order to accommodate the casket. But while we’ve been burying our dead for centuries, this idiom only dates back to the mid-1900s.
It was the TV show that introduced us to the Olsen twins, Kimmy Gibbler, and, of course, Uncle Jesse! But well before Full House was a staple of the ABC TGIF line-up—or it had a Netflix spin-off—the phrase full house was being thrown around the poker table or the theater.
Traced back to the 1800s, a full house in cards refers to “a hand consisting of three of a kind and a pair, as three queens and two tens.” When it comes to Broadway, a full house refers to “a full theater.”