On Knowing the Words Before You’ve Read Or Heard Them

Some works of art – books, poems, plays, movies – are so well-known, so widely read or viewed, that they enter the cultural lexicon. Most everyone knows a phrase or two, even if they’ve never had any contact with the piece themselves. It makes your first encounter with the work rather strange. Your immediate personal reaction bumps up against the version of the work that floats around in the ether. For me, two works in particular caused this double experience.

1) Hamlet. I was in my mid-teens at the time and had very little experience with Shakespeare so the language was difficult in places. But I knew a huge amount of it already without realising – hoist with his own petard, to thine own self be true, neither a borrower nor a lender be, to be or not to be, etc, etc – and I got multiple little shocks of recognition as I read.

2) Casablanca. I was surprised by just how much of the dialogue had escaped the movie and made its way into the wider world. There are the very famous lines – we’ll always have Paris, play it again, Sam (which is actually a mis-quote), of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine. But so much of the dialogue has been quoted and re-used and referenced that great tracts of it were familiar.

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