Words that work their way into our minds

Researchers at Cornell University try to figure out what makes for memorable quotes.

News flash: Shakespeare, the Greek and Latin classics, and the Bible are being supplanted as sources of one-liners, sage comments, and what we used to call literary allusion by ... the movies.

A Cornell University research team has looked into what makes for memorable phrases that get picked up and repeated in the larger culture.

The researchers based their work on the "Memorable quotes" pages of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Note that I specified Greek and Latin classics, lest you, Dear Reader, think I meant all those films on the Turner Movie Classics channel.

But as Johnson, The Economist's language blog, notes, "Hollywood provides many of the set phrases we deploy in everyday life.... Cultural osmosis means that this source material is oft-quoted both consciously and unconsciously."

So what makes for a memorable quote? The Cornell team found that such quotes tend to have distinctive content but simple structure: "unusual word sequences built on common syntactic scaffolding," as the authors of the paper put it. Or, in Johnson's phrase, "flowery wallpaper on the walls of an otherwise forgettable room." Specifically, the researchers found that 60 percent of memorable quotes used language more distinctive than that found in a standard corpus of words culled from news stories.

To quote Johnson again: "The [Cornell] team trawled through IMDb's 'memorable quotes' page for each of 1,000 films and drew out the most popular lines. They then took less notable sections from the same scene in the film, of a similar length and spoken by the same character (to mitigate any bias). A comparison of the two resulting corpora proves useful for those of us hankering for a place in the history books."

The Cornell researchers found that memorable quotes tend to include indefinite, rather than definite articles – "What we've got here is a failure to communicate," for instance, to cite an example (No. 11 on the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 American cinema quotes) that pops into my head, though I've never seen the movie ("Cool Hand Luke," 1967).

The "indefiniteness" presumably helps make phrases so infinitely adaptable and reusable. And yet – part of what makes great drama great is its blend of the universal with the particular, the very fully individualized particular.

Part of the appeal of a great movie like "Casablanca," for instance, is its complexities and shadings. It's about love and sacrifice, but rooted in a specific time and place. One of its memorable lines comes at the end of the film, after the leading lady has just taken off from the airstrip. The hero is invited to join the Resistance, and responds: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." But wait a minute, Humphrey Bogart trading Ingrid Bergman for Claude Rains? How is that going to work?

The memorable phrases tend to be present or future oriented, rather than in the past tense. They tend to be addressed to someone, even if it's someone who isn't there. Think of Ronald Reagan repeating a Clint Eastwood line, "Make my day," as he told a business group what he would say to anyone who wanted to raise taxes: Implicitly, the president was threatening to blow away such miscreants the way Eastwood's tough cop Harry Callahan character took out criminals in the "Dirty Harry" movies.

Part of the memorable movie quotes phenomenon seems to be that although a line may have specific roots, it may extend quite some distance. When 22nd-century historians are chronicling 20th-century tax policy, the "Dirty Harry" allusion will make for some elaborate footnotes.

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