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Breaking Bad? Word Stories Behind Four Popular TV Shows 

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Television has a habit of repurposing and repackaging common sayings into names of shows, from Three’s Company to Orange Is the New Black, 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 they name. This year’s Emmy roster was rife with familiar expressions borrowed from the wild. Today we’re going to take a look at how some of these idiomatic phrases were used before we came to associate them with binge-watching and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and explore the insights they offer about these critically acclaimed shows.

Breaking Bad
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 recently 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.

Mad Men
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.

Arrested Development
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 abrupt halting of the family business due to allegations of fraud and the stunted maturity levels of the characters. The abrupt cancellation of the show in 2006 lends the title a self-referential sense as well. Fortunately for fans, development of this show has been 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 main character of the television show House of Cards, Frank Underwood, also relies on balance and friction in his wildly intricate scheme to gain political power. The breadth of Frank’s machinations echo an insight from professional card stacker Bryan Berg, whose structures have been tested to support more than 660 pounds per square foot: the more cards placed on a tower, the stronger it becomes.

What are your favorite television shows with idiomatic titles?

38 Comments

  1. Ree -  March 31, 2016 - 8:36 pm

    “Six Feet Under” was one of my favorite series and revolved around the Fisher family’s mortuary. “Six feet under” is typically a metaphor for death and/or burial since caskets are typically planted at a depth of 6′.

    Reply
  2. Peg -  October 6, 2015 - 2:19 pm

    Firefly- a light in the dark. And the design if the ship

    Reply
  3. Bob461 -  November 15, 2013 - 10:30 am

    Get smart is a good movie to watch and it is a comedy movie and it is the best movie that I ever wacthed!

    Reply
  4. Bob461 -  November 15, 2013 - 10:29 am

    Is Breaking bad out yet? I hope it is a better season than the other ones. have you heard of mentalist? it is a really good show and it is a murder tv show and there is a dead body in every episode and there is some blood.

    Reply
  5. Bob461 -  November 15, 2013 - 10:25 am

    AFV is so funny and it is a good show to watch if you are bored and have nothing to do.

    Reply
  6. Bob6431 -  November 14, 2013 - 5:43 am

    There are some many seasons and I haven’t seen the final season yet.

    Reply
  7. Bob6431 -  November 14, 2013 - 5:41 am

    Why is Walter such a complicated character? I have heard that Breaking Bad is bad and I have also heard it’s really good. It that true?

    Reply
  8. Rebekah Otto -  November 12, 2013 - 10:19 am

    Walter White is such a complicated character.

    Reply
  9. Bob6431 -  November 12, 2013 - 9:25 am

    is Breaking bad goods?

    Reply
  10. Bob6431 -  November 12, 2013 - 9:23 am

    have you heard of Castle?

    Reply
  11. Peter -  October 12, 2013 - 8:39 pm

    As per Lisa’s post, I interpreted “Breaking” as in the lead horse breaking away from the pack in a horserace. I guess that applies to people races as well.

    Reply
  12. Eliz -  October 8, 2013 - 2:58 pm

    To Brian, Thanks for mentioning “Terms of Endearment”, a favorite book and movie of mine. Looking up “terms”, I noticed another possible meaning, “duration” or “life time”, which ties in well with the story.

    Reply
  13. Jane -  October 7, 2013 - 6:55 pm

    The season finale of Breaking Bad was a few weeks ago. And people were really excited about it. And now they’re talking about it. That’s what people do. So either stay currant or stay off the internet until you’re caught up.

    Reply
    • John Doe. -  October 12, 2015 - 1:42 pm

      * current
      And how does he stay current while staying off the net, or discussions like such. You’re under no obligation to update him, but if you do find yourself going the extra mile there’s no reason to be patronising or your condescension.
      p.s. in equal measure, if not more, there was no cause for this lecture either.
      Hope your voice gets louder! Barring stringent borders, and other nuances, I’d surely enjoy sharing any form of environment that offers room for debate, intellectual stimulation and scholarly compadre.
      - FY. (Not JD)

      Reply
  14. Handsome Jonni -  October 2, 2013 - 4:41 pm

    Hey, Ashley on October 1, 2013 at 6:30 am:
    Thanks a lot for the spoiler alert. <– Here is some sarcasm for you.
    Not all of us have made it through the final season, just so you know.

    Hey, dictionary.com moderators:
    Please consider editing Ashley's comment.

    Reply
  15. Lorne Evje -  October 1, 2013 - 6:44 pm

    The “blue” in “Blue Bloods” is also nicely cross-referenced as a universal reference for police.

    And, yes, byline credit should be given. What’s with that…?

    Reply
  16. Brian -  October 1, 2013 - 1:40 pm

    This is OT, since I’m referring to a movie and not a TV show, but I always liked the title “Terms of Endearment”, since the word ‘terms’ could be taken as in ‘terms of surrender’ or ‘contractual terms’.

    Reply
  17. Nostalgia -  October 1, 2013 - 1:17 pm

    My favorite show is Rugratz

    Reply
  18. Carwile2 -  October 1, 2013 - 9:11 am

    Duck Dynasty is a play on words that not many understand. The word “Dynasty” denotes that it is a successive reign over duck calls, which it is. The patriarch, Phil Robertson, who founded the company, now passed it on to his son, Willie, and it will be without a doubt passed to his son, John Luke

    Reply
  19. kaka -  October 1, 2013 - 8:55 am

    yallll crazey people

    Reply
  20. Lisa -  October 1, 2013 - 7:16 am

    The term “breaking bad” is first used by Jesse to describe his incredulity that Mr. White has made an abrupt and unexpected transition into an illegal activity.

    Reply
  21. Ashley -  October 1, 2013 - 6:30 am

    “BREAKING BAD” seems to have multiple meanings that may not have even been planned by Vince Gilligan! The show rocketed to the top of the T.V. “food chain” most likely due to it’s fresh and new content, similar to the “Sopranos”, where an “average guy” that you would see in the grocery store becomes a monster, and , reverts back to that “average guy” on and off during the entire show.
    To this humble reader, “breaking bad” has, after the finale of the last show, become synonymous with the theory that everyone has a little bit of good in them, and, a little bad. So it could be said that the character “Walt”, the lead character, was killed to “break” the world of his evil, thus ending many years of terror , murder, and suffering that he caused himself, and his family and friends.
    That is just my opinion, and as we all know, “everyone has one”.

    Reply
  22. d -  October 1, 2013 - 6:07 am

    nice article. you should get a byline

    Reply
  23. Valerie B -  October 1, 2013 - 3:23 am

    ‘Only Fools and Horses’ , the British sitcom, takes it name from an old saying that goes ‘only fools and horses work’. The show depicts a pair of brothers who spend their time doing dodgy deals and looking for get rich quick schemes.

    Reply
  24. G -  September 30, 2013 - 9:09 pm

    Break + adjective: break even

    Reply
  25. Ricky -  September 30, 2013 - 5:02 pm

    I like “Extras”

    Reply
  26. Ralph -  September 30, 2013 - 5:00 pm

    I made a house of cards once…

    Reply
  27. Jane -  September 30, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    I like Breaking Bad

    Reply
  28. AL -  September 30, 2013 - 4:44 pm

    LOST IN TRANSLATIONS

    Reply
  29. hhhiii -  September 30, 2013 - 2:28 pm

    buttox that a word right?

    Reply
  30. Pearl -  September 30, 2013 - 1:32 pm

    “Lost the plot” meaning to cease to behave in a rational manner; lose sight of the objective, as in the ABC series “Lost”

    Reply
  31. DeJordy -  September 30, 2013 - 12:53 pm

    I’m not sure that “idiom” is the correct word for plays on words and expressions. “Breaking bad,” maybe, as it is not a pun, metaphor or a grammatical pair.

    Reply
  32. jess -  September 30, 2013 - 12:39 pm

    Lol, I thought it meant breaking AWAY from being bad. I had no idea what the show was about. I thought it was about folks going straight. Haha.

    Reply
  33. SPetty -  September 30, 2013 - 11:40 am

    Bones: Forensic anthropologist and FBI agent solve crimes/mysteries involving bones.

    Mentalist: By using thought processes of a mentalist he solves crimes

    Person of Interest: Machine produces names of people that are in danger, possible crimes, which have to be solved

    Reply
  34. jdogg -  September 30, 2013 - 11:18 am

    Nice facts!

    Reply
  35. dee -  September 30, 2013 - 10:11 am

    Third rock from the sun

    Reply
  36. Susan -  September 30, 2013 - 6:55 am

    Get Smart featured Max Smart as a secret agent for CONTROL. The agents of KAOS were always thwarted by Max who was a bungler, and often not so smart.

    Reply
  37. Helen -  September 27, 2013 - 9:15 pm

    Blue Bloods refers to aristocracy or a socially prominent family. In the case of the show, it refers to a family of cops.

    Reply

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