"At the outset of every sweep phoner," wrote Lisa de Moraes in The Washington Post in December about the calls placed by network officials to influence interpretation of the latest ratings, "one NBC exec begins with a money quote -- one the press is sure to jump on."
Last summer, former US president Bill Clinton's nicely phrased hope that debates would return to "where we argue who's right and wrong, not who's good and bad" was praised in The Des Moines Register with "Clinton had the money quote of the day." Before that usage, Time magazine noted in 1984 that a biography of the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton made the publisher, Random House, "delighted but not surprised by the enthusiastic `money quotes' in early reviews."
Here we have a phrase gaining in frequency that has bypassed the classic coinage "blurb." That stroke of onomatopoeic linguistic genius by Gelett Burgess in 1907, meaning "effusive praise for advertising purposes," now has a synonym that is more emphatic. A "money quote" has subsumed the blurb's primary meaning of "recommendation that helps its object make money," adding the sense of "the essence, or most newsworthy part of the statement."
The love of money may or may not be the root of all evil, but what is the root of money as an attributive noun? (That's a noun doing the modifying work of an adjective, like killer whale, street-corner conservative, world opinion or blogger commentary.)
In sports, a money player is one who comes through in the clutch. It may have begun in billiards. The Chicago Daily Tribune in 1890, quoting from a decision on the handicapping of players, reported: "Schaefer and Slosson are scratch men at 500 points each. ... Catton, being a money player, can outstay Heiser in a test game." In horse racing, the money position was the front. In baseball, the New York Daily News wrote in 1949, "Pee Wee Reese ... Duke Snider ... and Luis Olmo ... came through with money hits to break the tie." (And where was Carl Furillo?)
Then money as a modifier meaning "powerful, decisive" made the move to movies as money shot. Steve Ziplow, in his Filmmaker's Guide to Pornography, noted in 1977 that "there are those who believe that the ... money shot is the most important element in the movie." The staid but resolutely unblushing Oxford English Dictionary, now available online for US$295 a year, cites this climactic phrase as an American colloquialism for "a provocative, sensational or memorable sequence in a film, on which the film's commercial performance is perceived to depend; [specifically, in a pornographic film] one showing ejaculation; ... [also, in extended use] a crucial or pivotal moment, event or factor, especially in another art form, as a novel."
Generations from now, lexicographers and etymologists scanning The Times archives for the origins of attributive use of nouns in the late 20th century will find this scholarly entry and have no trouble determining the money quote.
In The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, the investigative author Edward Jay Epstein holds that what used to be the movie business, centered in "movie houses," has been transformed into the home-entertainment business. As a result, its familiar lexicon has been overtaken.
"Outdated vocabulary," he writes, "includes such terms as B-picture, first run, marquee name, long run, blockbuster and box-office gross -- terms from an era in which the paramount measure of success was the performance and duration of movies in theaters."
Lest we forget, a B picture was a low-budget film made to accompany the feature film, thereby producing a double feature -- enough to fill three hours of an evening out, or time to air-cool off on a hot afternoon. The theater circuit was so named, Epstein tells me, "because reels of a single movie could be sent by bicycle from one theater to the next. Show times were sometimes cut so close that one theater was showing the first reel of a film while another theater was showing the last."
I pick no nits with his thesis of a paradigm-dropping shift in the industry and its lingo, but one of his etymologies is speculative. Blockbuster, he reports, was "coined in the 1920s to denote a movie whose long line of customers could not be contained on a single city block." Though an online encyclopedia suggests a similar origin -- describing a play so successful that competing theaters on the block are "busted" -- no specific citation is given, and without a citation, you don't have a coinage you can bite on. I'd say blockbuster is World War II vintage and cite The Los Angeles Times of July 30, 1942: "The RAF had lost 29 of the 600 bombers sent against Hamburg Sunday, when 175,000 incendiaries and hundreds of explosive bombs, including two-ton `block busters,' were dumped in a 35-minute raid."
In that same year, the phrase "the big picture" had its premiere. In his title, Epstein plays its movie meaning against its current sense of "an overview that brings perspective." Probably (now I'm the one speculating) the phrase grew out of the perspective in a painter's "broad canvas." The Big Picture, with initial caps to signify a theme, was used in 1931 by a Depression-era baseball official to describe the distinction that sportswriters bestowed on the St. Louis Cardinals star Pepper Martin, but its grand-perspective sense was first brought into play by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Allen Griffin, in defining the word strategy in 1942: "The term applies to the big picture; it is used in direction of campaigns ... to win wars."
Griffin's use of the phrase in the present sense may have been from an earlier use in an economics context by the British social scientist Barbara Wootton. His usage is today's money quote, but when somebody comes up with the hard evidence of its origin, security strategists, business gurus and language mavens will consider that a blockbuster.
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