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Words that work their way into our minds

Researchers at Cornell University try to figure out what makes for memorable quotes.

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News flash: Shakespeare, the Greek and Latin classics, and the Bible are being supplanted as sources of one-liners, sage comments, and what we used to call literary allusion by ... the movies.

A Cornell University research team has looked into what makes for memorable phrases that get picked up and repeated in the larger culture.

The researchers based their work on the "Memorable quotes" pages of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Note that I specified Greek and Latin classics, lest you, Dear Reader, think I meant all those films on the Turner Movie Classics channel.

But as Johnson, The Economist's language blog, notes, "Hollywood provides many of the set phrases we deploy in everyday life.... Cultural osmosis means that this source material is oft-quoted both consciously and unconsciously."

So what makes for a memorable quote? The Cornell team found that such quotes tend to have distinctive content but simple structure: "unusual word sequences built on common syntactic scaffolding," as the authors of the paper put it. Or, in Johnson's phrase, "flowery wallpaper on the walls of an otherwise forgettable room." Specifically, the researchers found that 60 percent of memorable quotes used language more distinctive than that found in a standard corpus of words culled from news stories.


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