It’s not clear who coined the phrase ‘to coin the phrase’, but it probably wasn’t Shakespeare. He did use it though, and given what we think we know about the Bard’s shameless plagiarism, whoever did come up with it really should have given some thought to checking in with the Patent and Trademark Office.
At any rate, ‘coining’ a phrase is now a staple part of our semantic diet and nothing could be more appropriate. Words have always been valued in a cultural sense, and when the churning out of literature meant slaughtering the regional livestock to publish medieval Latin on their skins, that cultural value had a definite economic edge. But we’ve refined the concept, and today coining a phrase means coin. Real coin. In terms of commodities, there isn’t any machine more fiscally important than the giant called Advertising. And words belong to that giant. We might like to think we own the rights to Free Speech in the Free World, but guess what? You can’t say that without stepping on some trademarked toes. Toes clad in socks you can’t dream of affording.
It might make sense that words make millionaires. In fact, we probably owe a debt to the over-quoted and the silver-tongued who’ve helped us adorn picket fence bill boards, and loaned us little gems to fill those terrifying blank spaces inside birthday cards. So if the illustrious descendants of Dickens and Whitman are rolling in gold-plated alphabet shapes, that’s just fine. Except they aren’t. Their beautiful words are neglected children in the big bad world of Catchphrase. And the words that actually have won the vocabulary lottery will make you wonder if you can afford to ever speak again.
While it’s difficult to assess the exact worth of a single phrase, certain celebrities, promotions and advertisements have successfully trademarked phrases that contributed hugely to their popularity and net worth through endorsements. We’ve assessed the worth of these phrases in terms of profit generated, at least 10% of the profits amassed by each entry on our list, among the celebs, and up to the full profits when it comes to an advertising campaign. So here we have it – just a few of the minted phrases so flabbergastingly brilliant they got colonised, copyright style.
5. ‘That’s Hot’: $1 million
Paris Hilton’s “The Simple Life”, either a blisteringly satirical examination of the ‘Let them eat cake’ school of elitism (she’s so clever, that kid) or an argument against Darwinian survival theory, spawned few things worth remembering. But it did give us ‘that’s hot’ – two words we thought we knew how to use but clearly didn’t. Hilton copyrighted the phrase in 2004, and made sure we knew she was serious about it during a highly publicised legal battle with Hallmark in 2007. It’s not possible to say quite how much of Hilton’s wealth can be attributed to this phrase, but with a net worth of $100,000,000, over $10,000,000 of which is annually attributable to endorsed product: If her breakout catchphrase is only worth about 10% of the net worth of her endorsements, that’s already a $1 million asset to Paris Hilton’s empire.
4. ‘Let’s Roll’ : $1.5 million
If the other entries on our list has bred a bit of cynicism among our discerning readers, number 3 on our list will warm your heart. The gods of capitalism may well have jurisdiction over a terrifying proportion of our language, but a certain 2001 copyright made strides towards its emancipation, while still bolstering the economy. Todd Beamer, a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93 made a call for help in the midst of the hijacking. His last audible words, according to the customer services advisor he reached, were “Let’s roll”, which words marked the beginning of a phenomenally brave attempt to overcome the hijackers. On September 26th 2001, the Todd M. Beamer Memorial Foundation copyrighted this phrase. The foundation reports an income of over $1,500,000 annually. Oorah.
3. ‘Eh Oh’: $2.1 million
You simply cannot put a price on education. Or, apparently, on its close friend ‘linguistic regression’. In 1998 the children’s television programme ‘Teletubbies’ first aired on PBS and made us all remember why we love Sesame Street. The show purported to teach children how to speak by following the contentious philosophy of phonetics, starting with the always challenging ‘hello’. In the hands of our fuzzy friends, the ashes of this most basic greeting gave birth to a phoenix known as ‘eh oh’, now the lasting memorial of the programme. The phrase was copyrighted in the show’s theme song, to which it loaned its name. Released as a single, the number didn’t do much in the USA, but UK profits were over £1,300,000 – that’s more than $2,100,000. Perspective? $1,000,000 per syllable.
2. ‘Yes, We Can!’: $25 million
In the political phraseology race, I’m betting many of us would back the Obama horse. The phrase ‘Yes, We Can!’ cemented one of the most important political victories in modern history. So if anything is worth copyrighting, this has to be it, right? Wrong. Ish. The phrase has never been copyrighted for political ends: It has, though, been copyrighted on a number of other occasions, claimed by corporations producing (variously) condoms, wine, and underwear, most notable of which is designer Audigier. And in a twist of glorious irony, ‘Yes, We Can’ was also once the possession of Intrust, independent banking. In these guises, the phrase has contributed to a collective net worth in excess of $250,000,000; if we attribute 10% of those profits to their advertising slogan, it’s worth a tidy $25 million. But politically speaking, ‘Yes, We Can!’ is a free man; so you’re at liberty to use this valuable little phrase next time you’re, say, canvassing for a leadership role in the local fishing club.
1. ‘Thank you. Thank you very much’: $50 million
They say good manners cost nothing. Not according to Elvis Presley Enterprises, whose latest copyright on this phrase was applied in 1999. The company has laid legal and financial claim to quite a few of the King’s watchwords, so even a fine tooth comb won’t be much help in assigning specific worth to these few words. But in total Presley’s posthumous net worth stands at an annual $55,000,000, as of 2013 and the estate that owns this phrase was bought for $509,000,000 in 2011. If his trademark phrase represents a modest 10% of that estate, that’s already $50 million worth of copyrighted gold. Thank you. Thank you very much.
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