The Catch-phrase Era

Some time ago, in my youth, I claimed to have invented the catch-phrase ‘big time!’ I didn’t claim to have invented either the word ‘big’ or the word ‘time’ as this would have been both inaccurate and easy to prove as much.  I did however, claim that I invented the exclamation of those two words together, usually in response to being asked a question where I wished to respond in the affirmative with a good deal of enthusiasm.  For instance:


Oasis: Not shit.

“Do you like the band Oasis?”

“Big time!”

Like that.

The example question is accurate too, because my claiming to invent the exclamation ‘big time!’ was in the mid-nineties.  As well as being the hey-day of people not thinking Oasis were shit, it was also the height of what would be known by historians as ‘The Catchphrase Bubble’; the go-go nineties was a time when coming up with a pithy, humourous, even mildly-annoying-but-cute little saying could make you fast millions and hand you cultural clout the likes of which have never been seen since.

Nineteenth Century

The Nineteenth Century: Pretty grim

There had been catchphrases in the past – ‘Get up that chimney or I’ll horse-whip you’ and ‘Whoopsie, I saw her knickers’  were both popular mid-nineteenth century catch-phrases derived from the ribald music-hall scene.

However, catch-phrases didn’t really begin to find their pithy feet and lose their horrendous child-labour connotations until the 1980s; with ‘Where’s the Beef’, ‘Eat my Shorts’, and practically everything Ronald Reagan said.

The year before I attempted to boldly stake my claim and take my seat in the glittering banquet-hall of the catch-phrase chosen, Quentin Tarantino made a movie, the script of which was made up entirely of catch-phrases.  This movie included the longest ever recorded catch-phrase:

By 1995, the year I broke ‘Big time!’ it was estimated that nearly a quarter of the gross domestic product of the United States and over half that of Europe was catch-phrase based. That year the undisputed king of all catch-phrases was a two-word ejaculation of enthusiastic agreement from Seinfeld character Cosmo Kramer.

That catchphrase was ‘Giddy up’.


Seinfeld’s ‘Kramer’: Nineties taste-maker

This was where I thought ‘Big time!’ would make me my fortune: As people tired of saying ‘Giddy-up’ in enthusiastic agreement, or simply to annoyingly punctuate something someone else had said, I felt people would turn to saying ‘Big time!’ as an equally pithy and mildly annoying exclamatory alternative.  All looked rosy until an awful truth dawned on me.

I hadn’t actually come up with ‘Big time!’.

My world came crashing down around me the day I learned that ‘Big time!’ was actually a derivation of a popular 1920’s Chicagoan catch-phrase ‘Big time, see!’ which had been Prohibition-era code for “Yes, I have some whisky, and no its not cut with paint-thinner’.

I tried vainly for some time to add ‘clicking-my-fingers-into-a-sort-of-finger-pistol-and-aiming-it-at-the-person-I-was-talking-to-while-saying-‘big time!” but to no avail. What had become apparent to many others finally became apparent to me: I was a bell-end.

After my crushing blow I followed the fortunes of the catch-phrase bubble and it was with no little schadenfreude that I witnessed the demise of the catch-phrase.

There is some scholarly debate about how the catch-phrase bubble burst.  Culturally, all signs turn towards the 2000 Budweiser commercial which featured a series of people using land-line telephones asking each other what is up.

Along with Southpark, the ‘Wassup’ commercial is often seen as the tipping point where catch-phrases ceased to be seen as comic, ironic, and maybe just vaguely annoying and when they started to be seen as sub-moronic.  This argument, however, overlooks both the success of the advertisement in creating a buzz and the entire career of British comedian Peter Kay.

The seeds of ‘Catch-phrase demise’ are just as likely to be legislative as cultural. As part of a raft of deregulation ushered in by the Clinton administration, the law which stipulated that words and pictures posted on the internet for the purposes of ‘humour or irritation’ had to be separate, was repealed.

Previously, for someone to make a joke on the internet it either had to be in text form, or it had to be a humourous picture, but never both together. In 1999 this law was repealed and it ushered in the era of the ‘funny captioned cat photo’ or what would later be called the ‘meme.’  In many respects the march of technology and deregulation burst the nineties catch-phrase bubble.

While I still shed a tear wondering what ‘big time!’ might have become, and there is some residual churlish about the fame, fortune and influence that might have been mine had it not been for 1920s speakeasy slang, I can now look back now with a clearer head and wonder upon the giddying glory days of the catch-phrase.


2 thoughts on “The Catch-phrase Era

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