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‘Star Wars’: May the lexicon be with you

kagan mcleod for the boston globe

I f you’ve ever turned to the dark side, joked about the government creating a Death Star, called yourself a Jedi, or compared anyone to Darth Vader, you’re fluent in “Star Wars” as a second language. Since 1977, George Lucas’s sci-fi fantasy has done more than create stunning visuals, Joseph Campbell-type mythology, and movies of varied quality: It’s been a prolific source of new terms and expressions, many of which are now commonplace.

It's hard to say whether "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" will be better than Bantha fodder, but there's no question that the language of "Star Wars" has been a huge success.

Much "Star Wars" lingo revolves around the force — the dark side, the light side, or using this invisible, mystical power in some way. Such a broad idea can be applied to almost anything, including the mundane world of politics. In a recent Rolling Stone article about the Republican presidential candidates, Matt Taibbi wrote, "Any vet of this process will feel, upon seeing [Marco] Rubio in person, a disturbance in the campaign-trail force." Michael Adams, Indiana University professor and author of "Slang: The People's Poetry" and "Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon," speaks to the power of the force in language. "Most of us find it difficult to believe, it's so familiar now, that going over to the dark side wasn't around before 'Star Wars.' Everybody who gets a promotion goes over to the dark side from the point of view of those who don't, and clearly we needed a compact way of expressing what's been going on throughout human history. 'Star Wars' gave us that in an iconic phrase memorably attached to the iconic example of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader — the dark side doesn't get darker than Darth Vader."

In "Star Wars," Sith lords like Vader rule the dark side, but it's the good guys — the Jedi knights — who have caught on in the language. LinkedIn is full of marketing Jedis, Internet Jedis, and wine Jedis. Like ninja, Jedi is a clever, if overly cute, ingredient in nontraditional job titles. The mind-influencing power of a Jedi is acknowledged by the common phrase: Jedi mind trick. A commenter at the website TV by the Numbers recently discussed being "suckered in by PR Jedi Mind Tricks," which sound considerably less lofty than the teachings of Yoda. A Yahoo News story boasted: "6 Sneaky Jedi Mind Tricks That Will Help You Lose Weight." In the New York Daily News, Shaun King portrayed white privilege in similar terms: "In a sense, that's what being a powerful white college president is — a constant Jedi mind trick." Jedi Mind Tricks is also the name of a hip-hop group. Even the word for a Jedi apprentice — padawan — has proven useful, as in this statement by Crispin Rovere in The National Interest: "[Jeb] Bush's campaign is terminal, but with the money already raised he will probably linger on, keeping votes and donors from his infinitely more promising Florida padawan, Marco Rubio."


Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, feels the success of many "Star Wars" terms has to do with them not being or feeling startlingly new. "The language of 'Star Wars' helps make the film believable because it feels lived-in and familiar. 'Stormtrooper' taps into terrifying chapters of 20th-century history from its use in WWI for Germany's shock troops and later for Nazi paramilitaries. 'Light saber' is made up of familiar parts, and terms like 'light speed,' 'blaster,' and 'imperial' are much more familiar to our ears than made-up terms like Klingon or 'warp speed.' Even 'droid' shows brilliant faux-linguistic aging of the shortening of a familiar word (android), which happens when they become quotidian and familiar. Think of 'bus' from omnibus."


Carbonite is another new/old "Star Wars" term. When, in "The Empire Strikes Back," Han Solo was turned into a giant popsicle by getting frozen in carbonite, Lucas and company invented a new substance, but they used an old word — carbonite has had several technical meanings since 1810. Since "Star Wars" froze Solo's predicament into our collective conscious, however, carbonite is now associated with freezing, much like Superman's Kryptonite can stand for any weakness. This clever 1996 use from Sydney's Daily Telegraph is mean but . . . "Why doesn't David Duchovny's face move? It's as if he's been frozen in carbonite."


Though the "Star Wars" films are compulsively PG, a few insults have become part of the lexicon — at least the hard-core geek lexicon. In the first movie, when Obi-Wan Kenobi refers to a bar as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy," that memorable phrase became lodged in the geek brain. A recent New Zealand Herald article by Rob Cox appropriates Obi-Wan's words for an earthly setting: "Russell was called 'the hell hole of the Pacific,' the original wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Speaking of scum, rebel scum is oft-quoted, as is nerfherder, which was colorfully used by Princess Leia about Han Solo in "The Empire Strikes Back." "Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerfherder!" Little is known of the nerf, but nerfherder appears to be a euphemistic version of zoophilia.

The greatest lexical contribution of "Star Wars" might be the names. Any mentor or teacher can be called a Yoda, while wise mentorship can be described with verbs like Yoda-ed and Yoda-ing. Darth Vader is synonymous with evil, just like other famous bad guys such as Lex Luthor, Hannibal Lecter, and Voldemort. Obi-Wan Kenobi has a meaning similar to Yoda, but also a more specific sense derived from his Jedi mind tricks. Jessica Jones, on her recent eponymous TV show, invoked this meaning when she called the mind-controlling Kilgrave "Obi-Wan Kenobi."


The name of this bazillion-dollar franchise has taken on other meanings too, most notably when Senator Edward M. Kennedy blasted President Ronald Reagan's 1984 Strategic Defense Initiative as "reckless Star Wars schemes."

Perhaps more than individual words, it's the quotations that make up "Star Wars"-ese. Even if you've never seen a "Star Wars" film, you've likely heard someone say, "Use the force, Luke," "I have a bad feeling about this," and "This deal's getting worse all the time." Fred Shapiro, editor of the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations, says, "The leading 'Star Wars' quote is probably 'May the Force be with you!'" Merriam-Webster's Sokolowski notes that this expression has a strong real-world foundation, since it has "an echo of the kiss of peace in the Catholic Mass, with its vaguely archaic and ceremonial subjunctive." Shapiro says other contenders for top "Star Wars" quote are "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," "Do or do not. There is no try," and "Luke, I am your father."

But why do we repeat such lines from these films, or from "Anchorman," "The Big Lebowski," or "The Godfather" for that matter? Shapiro says, "Movie quotes serve a variety of useful functions. They may be applicable to everyday situations, such that we repeat them the way we do proverbs, associating incidents from our lives with archetypal patterns. They may evoke great scenes or great films or great actors. They may just be eloquent or witty or insightful, allowing us to borrow the genius of a screenwriter or of a novelist or playwright who authored the material adapted for the movie. In past eras, we may have turned to literary poetry or fiction or drama for our 'familiar quotations,' but as the 20th century progressed and literature became less compelling, cinema took its place as a quote source and was more suitable for use by a wide range of people because the movies seem less pretentious."


While "Star Wars" has churned out plenty of terms and quotes, don't look to it for a coherent artificial language, a la the Klingon language created by Marc Okrand for "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." Arika Okrent, author of "In the Land of Invented Languages," notes that for "Star Wars," "They did the languages in a lazy way that movie producers can no longer get away with. They're like, oh, this sounds cool, or this has the right feel to it, but there's no structure, nothing to discover there. That bright-eyed language nerd who wants to sit down and figure out the system in order to run with it and make their own, I don't know, Ewok poetry or something will find nothing to sink their teeth into. That's the old way of doing it. The new way, the 'Avatar' or 'Game of Thrones' way has that kid in mind and is looking to hook them, fanwise, with the language, too." In other words, these aren't the coherent artificial languages you're looking for.

Even so, a whole book could be written about the lingo of "Star Wars," including names of alien races (Ewoks, Wookiees), fan language ("Han shot first!"), the preposterous midi-chlorians (microscopic thingamajiggers that unsatisfyingly explain the Force), and the often ridiculous grammar of Yoda ("Not if anything to say about it, I have."). That painful line came from one of the three prequels, which have produced hardly any classic "Star Wars" terms or quotes. It remains to be seen if "The Force Awakens" will contribute anything new. The lexical force isn't likely to be that strong again.

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