How 'Friends' and 'Seinfeld' Changed the Way We Talk

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Joey Tribbiani, using the phrase "Going commando" for the time ever, anywhere. (NBC)

In May 1997, there was a throwaway comment in an episode of Friends that somehow got itself permanently stamped into the lexicon. Phoebe rushes into Central Perk to tell the gang all about a woman who was close to her mother. "They were like BFF," she says, casually. The gang stares at her, bemused by the term. "Best friends forever," Phoebe is forced to clarify. It was neither a hilarious moment, nor one that made immediate waves, but 13 years later, the term had become so entrenched in our everyday verbiage, it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as a noun.

It wasn't the only time Friends left a permanent mark on our language. "The friend zone," a concept that has since been embraced and distorted by men's rights activists, arrived in the first season, as Joey explained to Ross why it was too late to ask Rachel out. And "going commando," while already an obscure term, was popularized much more widely in the episode when Joey wears all of Chandler's clothes without wearing underwear:

While the speedy spread of new slang makes perfect sense in the age of social media, it's much harder to fathom how TV shows once pulled off the same feat all by themselves. Catchphrases are one thing—they're used week in, week out until they're universally understood by the public (see: "Bazinga!" "Na-nu na-nu!" "Did I do that?" etc.)—but single episode phrases that stand the test of time are something of an anomaly.

The show most frequently credited for this is Seinfeld, thanks to a writing team led by Larry David that was fundamentally committed to coming up with compact, snappy terms to describe problems and life irritants that were universally relatable. These phrases were written into scripts so smoothly, Seinfeld's audience instantly understood—and latched onto—concepts like close talkers, low talkerssidlers and even Soup Nazis. Most remarkably of all though, it was Seinfeld that gave us a word for "regifting"—a concept so popular now, Colorado has been celebrating "National Regifting Day" every December 18th since 2008.


20 years after it went off the air, other gifts from Seinfeld continue to get recycled. Last year, country singer Brandon Lay released a track titled "Yada Yada Yada." "Festivus" merch remains so popular, Etsy has a dedicated section for it. And makers of female contraceptives have a membership club called "SpongeWorthy," named after Elaine's term for a man attractive enough to use her limited supply of sponges on.

Sure, there are plenty of other shows that have left a mark on American slang. Police officers wouldn't be referred to as "Five-O" if it wasn't for 1970s cop show, Hawaii 5-O; we wouldn't have the term "jumping the shark" if it wasn't for that ridiculous Happy Days episode; and—fun fact!—email spam was named after the Monty Python skit, in which no one can get a word in for all of the "spam" references. The difference is, these were all terms invented by the public in reference to shows rather than lifting language straight out of episodes.

When they were on the air, Friends and Seinfeld averaged between 21 and 24 million viewers per episode. The only sitcom to consistently come close to that since is The Big Bang Theory (18-20 million). Comedy shows considered big hits in between—the likes of How I Met Your Mother, The Office and Parks and Recreation—averaged about a quarter of that. With the decline and splintering of TV viewership, thanks to the plethora of new ways to watch and a vast array of content to stream, the kind of influence once wielded by sitcoms is a thing of the past. The linguistic gifts from Seinfeld and Friends, though, will stay with us forever.