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1. “Hermanos” (Spanish, “brothers”): Arrested Development/Breaking Bad
Pop music has a longstanding tradition of introducing listeners to a second language accompanied to a toe-tapping beat. TV and film are no slouches in the foreign-language department, either, but they have more time than the average pop single to delve into the thematic implications of dropping a foreign word into the script—or, in the case of Arrested Development, the comedic potential of doing so. In the sitcom’s first season, Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) falls for his brother’s girlfriend, telenovela actress Marta Estrella (played by two different actresses), only to discover that her heart truly belongs to a mysterious man named “Hermano.” An operating knowledge of Spanish illuminates the goofy pun in Marta’s surname (it’s Español for “star”) as well as the fact that Marta is crazy for Michael—after all, “hermano” is the Spanish word for “brother.” The misunderstanding is a sharp symbol of the Bluth boys’ general ignorance, as well as a sly wink to the fact that the brothers are each other’s greatest enemies. The word takes on a more affectionate—and sinister—tone in the name of Breaking Bad’s seemingly innocuous fast-food chain, Los Pollos Hermanos.
2. “Himmel, was los ist?” (German, “Heavens, what is this?”): Frasier
Frasier is a crash course in foreign loanwords. From wine names to opera titles to imported bon mots, Frasier and Niles Crane’s polyglot tongue-clucking helps define their sense of refinement and self-cultivation. Take the episode where the doctor is tasked with writing a 10-second jingle for his radio program. In typical Frasier fashion, he goes way overboard, and a simple ditty turns into an overblown orchestral extravaganza, including a harp, a gong, a slide-whistle, and dramatic monologue read by Niles. The theme’s extravagant lyrics include the line “So if you are stymied to find a prognosis / And ask yourself just like Freud, ‘Himmel, was los ist?’” The tossed-out line is another example of Frasier’s apparent compulsion for over-flexing his bourgeois intellectual muscle. Unsurprisingly, he lights up at hearing the line read back in rehearsal, sunny and self-satisfied at his own bilingual wit.
3. “Les jeux sont faits” (French, “the game is up” or “the plays are made”): Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
More so than Fast Times At Ridgemont High’s Mr. Hand and Back To The Future’s Mr. Strickland, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s Ed Rooney is a superlative example of what The Simpsons termed the “non-giving-up school guy.” With single-minded resolve, the dean of students played by Jeffrey Jones stalks the Chicago suburbs, hunting down Matthew Broderick’s charming truant. In a scene that underscores how out-of-touch Rooney is with the youths he’s charged with minding (and, to a lesser extent, educating), he heads to an arcade. Thinking he spots Ferris, he approaches from behind. Pleased, the principal coolly utters, “Les jeux sont faits. Translation: the game is up. Your ass is mine.” He is mistaken, and ends up getting soda sprayed in his face by the svelte young woman he thought was his prey. Les Jeux Sont Faits is also the title of a French film (written by Jean-Paul Sartre) about two soulmates who meet in the afterlife, which reveals the highfalutin literary dimension Rooney believes defines his cat-and-mouse efforts against Ferris. Like the doomed lovers of Sarte’s screenplay, Rooney and Ferris are meant for each other—the latter the flip, effortlessly cool tormentor, and the former the anally retentive authority figure subjected to an endless anguish and absurdity that borders on existential.
4. “Romanes eunt domus” (Latin, “Romans go home” or “People called Romanes, they go the house”): Monty Python’s Life Of Brian
Anyone who’s ever taken a Latin class knows how exasperating the language is. It’s a highly inflected tongue with a number of distinct tenses, moods, and potential conjugations determining word order; it’s easy to bung up even the most basic phrases. Such is the case in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, when Graham Chapman’s hapless messiah figure is tasked with tagging a Roman fortress with the graffiti “Romans go home.” After painting “Romanes eunt domus,” he’s confronted by John Cleese’s centurion, who reads the line as “People called Romanes, they go the house.” The centurion grabs Brian by the ear and subjects him to a lengthy grammar lesson. As punishment, Brian scrawls the revised, grammatically correct phrase, “Romani ite domum,” across the building 100 times. It’s a funny scene, and it rings true for those who’ve struggled with Latin. No wonder it’s a dead language.
5. “Je suis pain” (French, “I am bread”): The Tom Green Show
The Tom Green Show mined awkward, real-life situations for new depths of uncomfortable laughter. Green did a lot of that digging personally—painting the word “sluts” on his parents’ car, for one—which helped his eponymous MTV show excel at comedy that was simultaneously smart and stupid. A sketch like “Squirrel Vs. Banana” is a good example of that dichotomy, in that it maps a rudimentary understanding of the French language onto Green pretending to be a squirrel. In the sketch, Green and best friend/sidekick Glenn Humplik comb the sands at a beach resort while interviewing older tourists in French—none of whom, of course, have any idea what they’re saying. Thus, when Green lies on the beach, curled up in a ball, intoning “Je suis pain,” he manages to sound intelligent, but look like a moron. None of the tourists have a clue as to what’s going on, but all appear to think they should, so they gamely play along. It’s discomfiting, of course, but also funny as hell, and unexpectedly educational. Thanks to Green, scores of MTV viewers can now carry on a casual conversation with a tiny crab in French.
6. “Sabor De Soledad” (Spanish, “taste of loneliness”): 30 Rock
Frequent dollar-store shoppers are familiar with suspicious-looking yet will-do-in-a-pinch off-brand junk food with non-English brand names. In 30 Rock’s season-two episode “Cooter,” Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) professes her personal affection for Sabor De Soledad, a Mexican brand of cheese puffs. The brand’s name roughly translates to “taste of loneliness,” which turns poignant when single Liz excitedly believes she is pregnant, only to learn that a false positive was caused by the presence of evaporated bull semen—which gives the cheese puffs their tangy flavor—in her system. In spite of the strikes against Sabor De Soledad, it’s a surprisingly popular snack, appearing in numerous episodes of 30 Rock. (Sabor De Soledad is not to be confused with Señor Flurry or Señor Macho Solo, which the onetime Puerto Rican girlfriend of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) claims are the Spanish names for McDonald’s McFlurry and McRib sandwich, respectively.)
7. “J’ai une âme solitaire” (French, “I have a lonely soul”): Twin Peaks
Harold Smith (Lenny Von Dohlen) wasn’t Twin Peaks, Washington’s most outrageous resident—this is a town where one-armed men and soul-trapping dresser drawers roam free, after all—but he was no layabout, either. Agoraphobic, orchid-obsessed, and an amateur biographer to boot, Smith was also the man responsible for taking dictation on the secret diary of murdered homecoming queen Laura Palmer. But when the Nancy Drew/Trixie Belden team of Donna Hayward and Maddy Ferguson attempts to steal that diary, Smith quickly adds “suicidal” to his catalogue of quirks. His final missive to the scheming weirdoes of Twin Peaks is a suicide note that reads “J’ai une âme solitaire”—French for “I have a lonely soul.” In a nitpicking goof worthy of IMDB’s “Factual errors” department, the message is repeatedly mistranslated as “I am a lonely soul” by various Twin Peaks denizens. No matter—the haunting phrase is still the perfect kiss-off for poor, doomed Harold.
8. “Eta kuram na smekh” (Russian, “that’s ridiculous” or “that’s for chickens to laugh at”): Serenity
Plenty of languages float around the universe of Serenity, the capstone film of Joss Whedon’s short-lived, much-beloved science-fiction Western Firefly. Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds and the rest of his crew speak English but swear profusely in Mandarin, and Japanese katakana and Arabic characters make brief appearances in the background as set-dressing. But psychic super-solider River Tam (Summer Glau) also knows one engrained Russian phrase that functions as an off switch for her deadly abilities. When the Serenity crew conducts shady business in a bar, a subliminal video advertisement activates the embedded military training from the government program that brainwashed River, and she starts an elegantly choreographed fight through the establishment. Fortunately, her older brother Simon (Sean Maher) knows the safe word to put River to sleep and quell the violence. Though it literally translates “that’s for chickens to laugh at,” the phrase’s idiomatic meaning also describes the remarkable damage River inflicts.
9. “Mo chuisle” (Irish Gaelic, “my darling,” or “my pulse”): Million Dollar Baby
Before an undercard fight in London, Clint Eastwood’s grizzled trainer Frankie Dunn gives Hilary Swank’s up-and-coming boxer Maggie Fitzgerald a green boxing robe. Frankie brushes off the embroidered nickname as “just something in Gaelic.” When Maggie walks out to the ring, the crowd starts chanting the name, and the mystique surrounding the surprisingly tenacious fighter is born. The actual phrase is misspelled “mo cuishle” on the back of Maggie’s robe—either the result of a careless mistake, or an attempt to phonetically represent what is otherwise an unintuitive pronunciation of the phrase. After Maggie’s meteoric rise through the boxing ranks—and subsequent tragic accident during a title bout—Million Dollar Baby takes a dramatic shift from underdog sports drama to [spoiler alert!] morality play about euthanasia. Just before Frankie gives Maggie her wish for a simple death, he explains the phrase as “my darling, and my blood.” Gaelic scholars would define it as “my pulse,” but Frankie’s take is softer and more loving. It’s a term of endearment showing that the strong bond between Frankie and Maggie moved beyond boxer and trainer to something closer to father and daughter.
10. “¿Quien es mas macho?” (Spanish, “Who is more masculine?”): Saturday Night Live
Will Ferrell’s Spanish may outpace Bill Murray’s, but the ESL gags of Casa De Mi Padre have nothing on this sketch from SNL’s fourth season, presented entirely sin subtitulos. Murray plays the greasy, ruffle-shirted host of a game show on which contestants Gilda Radner and Ricky Nelson must discern whether Ricardo Montalbán or Fernando Lamas has the edge in terms of machismo. Sure, Nelson can’t pronounce “Jorge,” and the dialogue sometimes substitutes Spanglish for the mother tongue—note to first-year students: The Spanish word for “question” is not “questión”—but it’s still a remarkably nervy and largely successful gamble.
11. “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” (Latin, “after it, therefore because of it”): The West Wing
West Wing viewers could have predicted from the moment its Latin title came onscreen that the series’ second episode would find occasion for president and professor emeritus Jed Bartlett to host an impromptu lecture on the meaning of “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” Few would’ve assumed, however, that Bartlett would put his executive staff in the position of flatfooted freshman, sheepishly staring at their feet as he seeks for an upraised hand. Sure, there’s a simpler way to bring up the logical fallacy of false causation, but Aaron Sorkin is never one to wear his knowledge lightly.
12. “Schlemiel”/“Schlimazel” (Yiddish, “a consistently unlucky or inept person”): Laverne & Shirley
In the iconic opening credits to the Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams skip arm-in-arm down a Milwaukee sidewalk, chanting “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Schlemiel, schlimazel, Hasenpfeffer Incorporated.” Non-Jewish viewers in the pre-Internet days of the late 1970s and ’80s were likely mystified by the strange incantation, supposedly a hopscotch rhyme Marshall recalled from her childhood in the Bronx. Whatever its origins, the theme song introduced millions of goyim to the wonderfully nuanced Yiddish terms “schlemiel” and “schlimazel,” just two of the language’s umpteen words that roughly translate to “loser” in English. (In case you’re wondering, the schlemiel is the person who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the person whose lap it spills into.) While neither Laverne nor Shirley is, in any real sense, a loser—or Jewish, for that matter—their lifestyle is hardly glamorous, and somehow the nonsensical rhyme reads as a message of determination and solidarity.
13. “Ach du lieber! Das ist nicht eine ‘boobie’!” (German, “Oh, my dear! That is not a ‘boobie’!”): The Simpsons
Given how long The Simpsons has been on the air, and how many different languages its characters have spoken over the past 500-plus episodes, it proves decidedly challenging to determine which foreign phrase from the series has had the most impact on viewers. A strong contender: a German phrase in the fourth-season episode “Whacking Day.” While preparing for Springfield’s infamous excuse to beat up the Irish, Abe Simpson weaves a yarn about the time he was trapped behind enemy lines, and in an effort to preserve his identity, had to participate in a drag show held in Adolf Hitler’s honor. During a stirring rendition of “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” (or the non-union German equivalent), Abe accidentally lets slip one of the oranges hiding in his brassiere, causing a frustrated Führer to pound on the tabletop and offer his most memorable exclamation. Although the first part of the phrase has turned up in other Simpsons episodes over the years, never again has “ach du lieber” been teamed with such a formidably funny partner.
14. “Les incompétent” (French, “the incompetent”): Home Alone
Though Home Alone is best remembered for its slapstick hijinks and Macaulay Culkin’s precocious performance, the film also provided the youth of America with an introductory lesson in French culture. As Christmas approaches, the extended—and apparently rolling in cash—McAllister family is preparing for a holiday trip to Paris. Youngest child Kevin (Culkin) clashes with his boorish older brother, Buzz (Devin Rartray), who’s only interested in whether “French babes” shave their pits. Meanwhile his haughty sister, Linnie (Angela Goethals), ridicules Kevin’s helplessness. “You know Mom’s gonna pack your stuff anyway. You’re what the French call ‘les incompétent,’” she says. As unlikely as Linnie’s casual French witticisms might be—after all, she looks about 12 years old—they certainly set her apart from her pesky, unsophisticated little brother. The scene is funny, but it also works on an emotional level: Kevin wants to make his family disappear because he feels like such a nuisance.
15. “Hasta la vista” (Spanish, “See you later”): Terminator 2
“Hasta la vista” wasn’t exactly an obscure phrase outside of Spanish-speaking countries before Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered it before killing the shapeshifting T-1000 in Terminator 2. In fact, the casualness of the farewell is a callback to John Connor (Edward Furlong) teaching his protective Terminator how to blend in to their surroundings. Perhaps James Cameron and William Wisher picked up the phrase from its use in two popular late-’80s pop songs—“I’m Looking For A New Love” by Jody Watley and “Wild Thing” by Tone-Lōc—figuring it was just awkward enough to sound funny coming from a square-jawed cyborg. But after Schwarzenegger dropped it as the ultimate kiss-off line in the blockbuster, the phrase became vernacular worldwide—in Schwarzenegger’s signature Austrian monotone, of course. The actor even used it as a catchphrase during his time as Governor of California.