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September 19th 2013
Some months ago I wrote a post on the language of the Beatles for the OxfordWords blog, which could be credited to nepotism given that my brother was running the blog at the time. Simon has since moved on, but the good people of Oxford Dictionaries asked me back to write about the language of Friends. That post went live this week and can be seen here, but as a window into the editing process, I thought I'd show you the original version I submitted on this page. Don't tell anyone. Actually, this isn't quite the original version, because I misspelled 'cachet' first time round (particularly embarrassing given the context), and also because I added the bit about episode titles at the request of the OxfordWords blog editor. Anyways, here it is:

Words with Friends: the language of a sitcom

Having been one of the best-watched programmes on television for 236 episodes over ten years from 1994-2004, it was inevitable that Friends would leave its mark on the landscape, both in its native USA and elsewhere. From Chandler's distinctive vocal inflections – "could I be any more sorry?" – to Joey's "How you doin'?" catchphrase, via the haircut know as "the Rachel" and millions of people suddenly knowing what a palaeontologist was, Friends undeniably had an impact on the world around it. Its creators, Marta Kauffman and David Crane, probably didn't think in 1993 when they began developing a sitcom then called 'Insomnia Cafe', that that impact would include popularising a term for not wearing underwear. But, well, that's what happened.

When Joey insisted that he wasn't "going commando in another man's fatigues", he wasn't the first to use the phrase (believed possibly to be a reference to soldiers in the Vietnamese war), but he brought it to a much wider audience than had previously been aware of it. The same is true of 'BFF', meaning 'best friends forever', which was used by Phoebe in a 1997 episode and made it into the OED 14 years later. Friends went one better in the neologism stakes by making the first known reference to the apt term "friend zone", indicating a platonic relationship where one person (in this case, Ross) wants to be more than just friends, whereas the other (Rachel) does not. Spoiler alert: they make it out of the zone. Inventing words was not always so successful for the Friends writers, though: the insult 'scrud' (Ross: "What's a scrud?"; Charla: "Why don't you look in the mirror, scrud?") has not stood the test of time, and even the delightful portmanteau 'frienaissance' (friend + renaissance = a renewal of friendship, as instigated by Joey and Phoebe) has yet to achieve official status.

"You're funny, Chandler. You're a funny guy!" – Rachel

Like many sitcoms, Friends included wordplay within its arsenal of comic weaponry, more often than not placed into the mouth of Chandler Bing. While a lot of the character's humour was dependent on delivery and comic timing, he wasn't averse to the odd pun, focusing with surprising frequency on his own name: he claimed that Bing is "Gaelic for 'thy turkey's done'" (probably not the only time that Friends used onomatopoeia for comic effect, but the only one I can think of), and once told Phoebe that she should meet his uncle, Bada. His first name also proved rich comic fodder, despite coming in for criticism from Joey who claimed (erroneously) that "It's barely even a word! It's kinda like 'chandelier' – but it's not." For example, in a moment of crisis Chandler made the indisputable linguistic point: "I can handle it; handle's my middle name. Actually, it's the middle part of my first name." Less impressively, he once described cranberries as 'chan-berries'.

"French – which, according to my résumé, I'm fluent in" – Joey

Given the international popularity of Friends, I have often wondered how the translators cope with such jokes. For example, on a visit to Westminster Abbey, Joey accused Chandler of being 'Westminster Crabby', and regardless of what you think of the joke itself (I don't rate it as one of their best, personally), you have to feel sorry for whoever in Germany had to make 'mürrisch' sound like 'Abtei'. Similarly, Chandler's hypothesis that there could be a town in Missouri called 'Sample', with a welcome sign saying 'You're in Sample' only works in languages where the words for 'you're in' sound like the word for 'urine'. I haven't done a full check but I reckon that's just English. Subtler problems would have been caused by Chandler wanting to know whether 'the place with the big fish' held multiple fish or just one big fish, or his responding to the question 'Who's number two?' by saying "'Whose number two' – one of the more difficult games sewer workers play." Sorry about mentioning both urine and sewers in this paragraph.

Some of the great language moments in Friends came when characters got things wrong. There is something quite poetic to Phoebe's chastisement of Monica: "You sound like Moni-can't, not Moni-can!", and who can forget Joey's detour into etymology, explaining the origins of the alleged phrase 'moo point': "It's like a cow's opinion; it just doesn't matter. It's moo." Like so many errors in language, you can see where he was coming from. Genuine colloquialisms were also extrapolated for comic effect in Friends, as in Chandler's retort to worries that he'd been left high and dry: "I've never been lower or wetter". Or, from the same character: "This isn't out of the blue! This is smack dab in the middle of the blue!" Such wordplay shows an appreciation of the development of language that "Westminster Crabby" doesn't quite reach.

"All right, what have we learned so far?" – Chandler

While fans tended to focus on its humour, Friends also found the time to provide educational benefit to its viewers. While most would have learnt little from Joey's 'word of the day' toilet paper (cachet, jaunty, judgmental, condescending and pedantic were new to him, at least), most of us hadn't come across the word 'gleba' until it was the reputed first word of Ross and Rachel's daughter, Emma. Rachel even read out a definition: "the fleshy spore-bearing inner mass of a certain fungi", and while I've not yet been able to use it in conversation, it's surely only a matter of time.

No view of Friends' use of language would be complete without a look at their episode titles, which quite simply state what happened in the episode: "The One Where Rachel Goes Back to Work", for example, was the title of the season nine episode in which Rachel went back to work. Unimaginative perhaps, but understandable: the writers decided on this system because they were tired of spending so much time coming up with clever episode titles on their previous sitcom, Dream On (e.g. May Divorce Be With You; Toby Or Not Toby; The Charlotte Letter. That does sound like hard work, actually).

Although it's been nearly a decade since the last Friends episode was broadcast, the sitcom remains a staple on our screens, so its impact on our language will continue to be felt – and its use of language will be enjoyed – for many years to come.

what was I listening to?
Revolver - The Beatles
what was I reading?
Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
what was I watching?
Clueless
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