“Big Bang Theory” – Cultural References Analyzed

One of the businessmen I work with is an avid fan of the popular TV Show ” The Big Bang Theory”. He is an advanced learner of English and in his free time enjoys challenging himself by watching various TV programs in English – a quite difficult task depending on the show he decides to throw into his Blue-Ray player! With a little prompting from him I got my hands on a transcript of a 20min episode and took some time to analyze it with a teacher’s eye on language.

I was not surprised to see that there were plenty of cultural references, idioms, challenging metaphors, spoken language conventions, and slang being used.

What I was surprised at was the amount of them! 

Let me share some of the results I found with you – please note that I am sure I missed some things within the script, though I did my best to actually analyze the language in the episode! (This involved a printed transcript, highlighters, and lots of coloring!) Being a fan of the show and having a copy of the episode on iTunes also helped keep everything in context.

I looked at a recent episode from season 6 – episode 15 – named “The Spoil Alert Segmentation” which aired in the US on February 7th, 2013.

Big Bang

Cultural References :   At least 18 - that’s a cultural heavy reference coming up at minimum one time every minute and 11 seconds. If one is unaware of the reference, one would “miss” the joke or have problems following the conversation. Context clues can often help… but the reality is that background knowledge of these things help. A learner listening to this episode in English will find these as obstacles slowing down understanding.

Here is a list of things that were referenced – which I believe would be confusing to somebody unaware of them:

  • Harry Potter (3 times)
  • Burt & Ernie from Sesame Street (2 times)
  • Doggie Bags from a restaurant
  • Cocoa Puffs (cereal brand)
  • Marie Callender’s pie (chain restaurant in the US)
  • Xanax (brand name of medicine)
  • Mister Mxyzptlk (Superman character)
  • Star Trek phaser (weapon from Star Trek)
  • Game of Thrones (TV show)
  • The Walking Dead (TV show)
  • The Rockford Files (TV show)
  • Drano (brand product for plumbing)
  • Bar Mitzvah (Jewish celebration)
  • Russian Nesting Dolls (matryoshka dolls)
  • Acrobats in Cirque du Soleil (theater show)

Did you know all of those?? Even as a Native Speaker we might not be aware of all of them, but obviously these present challenges for our language learners out there in the world!

Phrasal Verbs :  At least 33 – this is a low number as there is a good chance I missed a few… and just what exactly counts as a phrasal verb & where to count them might alter the number a little. Many of these phrasal verbs would cause trouble in understanding for a language learner.

Here are a few:

  • to bring up a subject
  • to bitch about something
  • to put up with somebody
  • to get lucky
  • to break down (emotionally)
  • to get by without somebody
  • to get together (become a couple)
  • to freak out
  • to lay out a series of arguments
  • to tuck somebody into bed
  • to do it (sexually!)
  • to pick up
  • to find out (discover)
  • to hit a few hot spots

Idioms/Metaphors/Colorful Expressions:  There were a few of these as well. “The Big Bang Theory” is a comedy, and so we would expect that some idioms and metaphors would be included for comedic  effect. Here are a few I found:

  • to make lemonade out of lemons (they were speaking about something much more vulgar than lemonade however!!)
  • “to carry my stomach out of here like I’m a fireman rescuing an infant” (because he has eaten so much!)
  • to find someone as “cute as a button”
  • This “little dust up between you and me is much ado about nothing”
  • to be “a hippie at a love-in”
  • to be “a snake in the garden”
  • to “cut to the chase”

Colloquial words: The characters in the show are living in California, though some of them come from different parts of the US or the world… and so we encounter some colloquial words that would also likely present a challenge. A few examples from this episode:

  • to have a hissy fit
  • to nag somebody
  • a big wig
  • an emotional wreck
  • to get lucky
  • a stooge, a whipping boy, a doormat
  • a lovable scamp
  • a pal
  • a jerk
  • a home wrecker
  • to get all huffy

Now after all of that I’ve decided I should make a short English lesson for the “Big Bang Theory” fans out there learning English – it’s on the way! Once I have it I will post it to this blog. UPDATE: Find this here 

What to take from all of this??

Native Speakers: Watch out for all of the above! Clearly we are talking about a TV show in English, so everything said was appropriate for the audience – however, should you find yourself in an international business situation, watch out for using expressions like the one’s listed on this page. Though they are colorful and surely show your fluency they also present obstacles for your business contact trying to understand you.

Non-Native Speakers / English learners: The more you know about the culture of a language, the easier the language will become… so learning such expressions can always help. However, when you encounter such an expression be sure to ask the speaker to clarify what they mean – not only will you learn something new, but you will also make the speaker more aware of their own language.

Would you like short English lessons based around the Big Bang Theory? Do you know other websites that help you prepare you before watching a show in English? Feel free to comment below!

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3 Responses to “Big Bang Theory” – Cultural References Analyzed

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi matt

    just wanted to say that i used your idea in class with intermediate level learners recently. it seemed to pique their interest (these are uni students on an intercultural course whose current workload means English is not a high priority!).

    i warmed them up by asking if they understood the reference to Hogwarts, then explained that they would see an episode of Big Bang Theory(it’s very popular in France) with a number of cultural refs.

    i presented your list but taking out the names and just leaving the general ref i.e. book, TV Show etc and asked them to identify the names. i also added the Beverely Hills Chihuaha(Movie), Blintzes(Jewish pancake), Oy Ve(Jewish saying). i asked them to also note how many refs are made to the harry potter book and to the sesame street tv show.

    i also i asked them to note down any unusual/interesting language that they spotted.

    further i used your phrasal verb list to see how many of those they knew/recognised compared to the cultural refs – they recognised on average 70% of the phrasal verbs compared to about 30%percent of the cultural refs (excluding the TV Show refs).

    i may exploit the idioms lists and colloquial exp list in the following class.

    • Hi Mura,
      Thanks for the feedback! It’s amazing how The Big Bang Theory is traveling around the world and seems to be doing quite well in most countries. It’s quite interesting to see how they translate some of the “culturally heavy” jokes & quick one-liners. Sometimes I wonder how they do that… The Simpsons is another one of those shows that must be full of the cultural refs.

      The way you ran that activity sounds quite creative – as I first created it thinking of Native Speakers I had not thought of having them find the cultural references in that way… Your idea sounds great! A nice way to get the English learners aware of the number of cultural refs – while hopefully picking up a phrase or two and of course having fun along the way.

      So it sounds like the phrasal verbs were a lot easier than the cultural refs (excluding the TV show refs)… When I ran a small clip of this episode with a higher level EFL course we basically found the same thing – that’s a good reminder that the Native Speakers out there need to be very careful with using them..

      I plan to create some activities with TBBT (for English learners… not a Native Speaker Awareness activity) over the Easter break as it seems there are quite a few people learning English out there who would like to have something to help them at home while watching the show.

      Anyhow – hope there were some laughs in the class that day :-)

  2. Pingback: Big Bang Theory en Francais est Magnifique! - Movie Mom

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