Word Virus

August 1st, 2008

Last night I watched a movie about a profoundly inept stuntman and his dysfunctional family. It was funny – heartwarming even – within the confines of its genre. And then it got surreal. Two of the lead characters engaged in an extended battle of discursive gymnastics as they took turns contorting the phrase… “cool beans.”

Cool beans? Cool beans?? I thought some crazy kid in my very small Midwestern hometown invented “cool beans” back in 1991 and convinced the other kids it was worth saying – for about five minutes, until the novelty wore off. But there it was, last night, in a movie made in 2007, by Hollywood types who most certainly did not come from my home town. Was “cool beans” really a national phenomenon? Is it worth referencing almost 20 years later?? Really??

Oh no, it’s much worse.

Occasionally, when Sam is perplexed by something on his computer, I overhear him muttering “qu’est ce que c’est que ce beans?” Literally, this translates to “what is this bean?” But in practice, it means something closer to “what in the world is this thing?!” And he says this because he’s quoting the words of a character in a film called Les Visiteurs that came out in France in 1993. (According to imdb.com, Les Visiteurs is about “a medieval nobleman and his squire [who] are accidentally transported to contemporary times by a senile sorcerer”). Now clearly, the definition changed slightly, from when “cool beans” had… well… no discernable meaning in English, to when “beans” came to mean “perplexing thing” in French. But still! This totally useless, short-lived linguistic tic traveled across the continent and around the world – even making its way into other languages – in a few short years.

Maybe some word combinations have the virus-like ability to adapt and mutate – to do whatever it takes to survive. Where will “cool beans” show up next?

Entry Filed under: Observable Phenomena