Ideas

The Word

From X-Files to Star Wars, we live in the golden age of the re-quel

dominic bugatto for the boston globe

In movies and TV, new ideas can be hard to find. But old ideas continually reappear in new packages described by specific language. “Ghostbusters” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” are two of the most recent franchises to receive (forthcoming) reboots, while “Memento” will be getting an old-fashioned remake. Horror franchise “Evil Dead” was given not a reboot but a relaunch, as the show “Ash vs. the Evil Dead” picks up where the movies left off. In comic books, Marvel, DC, and Archie have all rebooted their universes in the past five years. Speaking of comics, the classic “Watchmen” is possibly headed to TV, and writer Nathan Parker wonders whether it should be a reboot or another popular genre and term — the prequel. Recent prequels “Gotham” and “Hannibal” have featured the early days of Commissioner Gordon and Hannibal Lecter, respectively. Meanwhile, “Fear the Walking Dead” was a spinoff from — or, to use a newer, more pretentious term, a companion series to — “The Walking Dead.”

All this language for new chapters in fictional franchises adds up to one thing: more of the same. This is the age of the re-quel.

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Though prequels are common these days, the word has been around for decades. It’s first found in a 1958 article by Anthony Bouncher in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as Boucher refers to “a ‘prequel’ to Earthman Come Home.” The father of that word, sequel, has had an interesting life. Derived from Latin, sequel first turned up in English via the French sequelle in the 1400s, and it meant a group of followers or adherents, kind of like an entourage. From there, the word spread to other people and things that follow, such as heirs and parts of a logical argument. Along with those meanings, sequel can be found referring to continuations of stories as far back as the 1500s.

The latest variation is sequel trilogy, which has been used often in reference to the new group of films that kicked off with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But as a headline on comic book rumor site Bleeding Cool shows, other franchises have the same idea: “James Cameron’s Avatar Sequel Trilogy Planned For Yearly Release.” Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and creator of the Web of Language site, doesn’t think sequel fits the new “Star Wars” movie, since it’s so far removed from the movie it follows, 1983’s “Return of the Jedi”; he suggests the term post-quel. Baron didn’t love the new film, but jokes that at least it wasn’t a “Ny-quel, which I suppose is a pre/post-quel that puts people to sleep.”

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Baron explained how a prefix like -quel — a back formation — arises, comparing it to helicopter. To most people, that word looks like a straightforward combination of heli and copter. But the term was actually spawned from helico (spiral) and pter (wing, as used in pterodactyl). The word was “reetymologized” to create the prefix heli, which has proven useful in words such as helibus, helicar, and helipad. The development of heli- and -quel show that if part of a word feels like a prefix or suffix, it can become one. Such folk etymology is common, as Baron notes: “We give meaning to words that look strange to us. And then we play with them to make meaning as needed.”

Along with the various children of sequel — including rarer words such as interquel, midquel, and paraquel — the prefix re- is omnipresent in the world of movies, TV, and comic books. There are relaunches (like “The X-Files” picking up where it left off), reimaginings (a term often used for the second “Battlestar Galactica” series), and of course reboots.

Reboot has been used as a verb since at least 1971, when the Oxford English Dictionary records an example from a programming manual about a command that “reboots the system by jumping to the read-only memory, which contains a disk boot program.” When a computer is rebooted, it starts fresh. By the late 1980s, the term as being used in metaphorical ways, as in a 1989 (Toronto) Globe and Mail article: “Computer retailer Canada Lease is still hoping to reboot its operation despite the National Bank of Canada demanding repayment of its debt.” These days, reboot is most prominently used for entertainment franchises, but the reboot is often a last resort, when there are no more sequels or prequels possible. As Baron notes, “Reboot sounds like you’re putting electrodes on a corpse and trying to reanimate it.” No one reboots an iPhone or franchise unless something is seriously wrong.

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The appeal of re- is strong, as the return of a beloved franchise or character can bring us back to our youth. As brand expert Nancy Friedman puts it, “Nostalgia is part of the human condition: even the ancient Greeks needed the concept of a long-ago Golden Age.” Back in 2012, Friedman looked at America’s conservative party through the lens of this conservative prefix: “They’re Republicans, and they use re- words to help voters make the connection. Also, they’re somewhat fixated, as a group, with going back — pre-Obama, pre-21st century, to a hazy golden age of Main Streets and picket fences. The re- prefix (Latin for ‘back’) drives home that theme. Re- may also trigger a subconscious association with Reagan, the frequently invoked patron saint of the Republican Party.”

Of course, big and little screen entertainment aims to resonate deeper than politics, playing on a universal nostalgia and desire for the familiar. Grant Barrett, host of the public radio show “A Way with Words,” feels the re-quel culture and vocabulary may soothe the demons of the decision-makers as well: “Hollywood to me is a place where everyone so badly needs therapy from all the personal sacrifices, moral compromises, and crummy business deals that they have to suffer through for a payday, and the re-, pre-, -quel words are a kind of naming of their pain. They (and I do mean They) are looking for some kind of increase in odds that the thing they’re sinking years and millions into will have a better chance of success.”

Given the historical success of the latest “Star Wars” movie, such backwards-looking thinking is likely to continue and make a lot of people rich. Let’s just hope the powers that be keep greenlighting an occasional new idea or there won’t be anything left to reboot, relaunch, remake, rebrand, or otherwise recycle.

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.
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