Language and Culture

To Coin a Phrase, Just Jump the Shark

Have you ever wondered how to coin a phrase? Why do some expressions take off and others never catch on? Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: If you “jump the shark” while water-skiing and wearing a leather jacket, a coined phrase won’t be far behind.

I don’t care how much you paid me, I would never jump over this thing.

Where Does “Coin a Phrase” Come From?

Why do we say “to coin a phrase”?

Because in this expression, coin means “to invent” or “to fabricate.”

The English word coin comes from the Old French coing, which can mean “wedge,” “stamp,” and “corner,” among other things. Speakers of French will recognize this last meaning.

Those of you who know your Latin roots won’t be surprised to learn that cuneus, the predecessor to coing, means “wedge.” (If cuneus makes you think of the wedge-shaped Sumerian writing called cuneiform, give yourself a hand!)

coin a phrase: 1) to invent an expression; 2) to introduce a clichéd expression (ironic)

The real trick, though, is not just inventing the phrase but turning it into something that people know and use, often without thinking about it.

Sure, television may contribute to America’s obesity epidemic, but it’s a great source of additions to the English language!

One of the wonderful things about language is that the number of possible phrases that a person can come up with is endless. But just because something is grammatically possible doesn’t mean it will catch on.

For example, I could try to coin a phrase such as “silly as a house,” but it wouldn’t work.

One reason is that we don’t often apply adjectives such as silly to inanimate objects (here, a house).

Another reason is that there’s no referent for such an expression. Sometimes irony, imagery, or unusual events give rise to phrases made up of words that, at first blush, don’t seem to fit together based on their definitions.

For example, the person who coined the phrase “to go over like a lead balloon” was being ironic.

What I find fascinating, though, is when pop culture gives birth to new expressions in English—like, say, when Arthur Fonzarelli jumped over a shark while on water skis.

When Fonzie Decided to Jump the Shark, Literally

In 1977, the sitcom Happy Days was a hit. It ran for 11 seasons and was one of the top three shows for three seasons in a row.

So what do you do when you’re at the top of your game? You write a script that calls for one of the main characters to water-ski over a shark.

Yep, that’s right. Before “jumping the shark” meant anything in the figurative sense, it was a stunt performed by Fonzie, played by Henry Winkler.

Winkler was a good water-skier, and I guess the writers figured, “What the hell? Let’s have him jump over a shark!”

jump the shark: to use bizarre or gimmicky plot devices in an attempt to maintain ratings

But according to Ron Howard, who played Richie Cunningham on the show, at least one cast member thought it was a bad idea.

Donny Post, who played Ralph, said to Howard privately, “Oh, man. Look at what our show has kind of evolved into.”

As the graph below indicates, the show’s ratings indeed started to slip in the late seventies—not too long after the “jump the shark” episode.

But everything’s relative. Happy Days was still very popular. A lot of shows would kill to be “only” the 17th most popular on TV, so I can’t be too harsh.

coin a phrase, when did happy days jump the shark bar graph

Did the series figuratively jump the shark when Fonzie literally jumped the shark?
(Click to enlarge.)

What’s interesting is that Winkler rejects the idea that the show started to decline at all after the stunt, saying that Happy Days was, “No. 1 for, like, six years after that.”

Apparently, Henry Winkler and I get our data from different places.

But who are you going to believe? The Fonz? Or some rando with an Internet connection and a weak spot for Wikipedia? I thought so.

Happy Days Never Jumped the Shark for Me

I watched Happy Days all the time as a kid. Though the show was at its peak the year I was born, I watched the later seasons when they aired. And I watched even more episodes in reruns.

Whenever I was sick, I lay down on our living room couch with my pillows and blanket and watched a lot of TV. I’m talking a whole day’s worth.

Game shows such as Press Your Luck and The Price Is Right, sitcoms like Silver Spoons and Diff’rent Strokes—they were great.

But at the top of the list was Happy Days. I watched reruns of that show like it was going out of style. (I didn’t know the phrase “jump the shark” then.)

When you’re a clueless kid, you’re not thinking about the creative choices of the directors and writers on one of your favorite shows. You’re just happy to watch.

So Fonz, listen—you have my utmost respect. You are ten times the water skier that I’ll ever be, and you can wear leather like a boss.

Thank you for giving this guy (who grew up in the 1980s) some great memories from a show that ran in the 1970s (but was set in the 1950s).

“Happy Days,” Wikipedia.
“Jumping the shark,” Wikipedia.
“Why ‘Happy Days’ — and the Fonz — Never Truly ‘Jumped the Shark,’ Smithsonian magazine, September 2017.

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If you’re into origin stories, check out a few words that we get from other languages. You can also read about where we get the word vaccine. (I’ll give you a hint: moo.)


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