Developing Your Own Clever and Unique Phrases
Posted on 10th July 2017
Many of you may know that I create fonts. But what many of you may NOT know is that I’m also a writer, and have 20 years of working in the comedy business under my belt. (Including 4 years of both performing improv and hosting a comedy game show at Disney World.) So today, I’m going to step out of my font creator shoes, and into my comedy writer shoes. (I’ve even changed up the banner image for this!) I’m going to share some tips and tricks on how to develop funny, unique phrases that are original to you, so you can create cool custom projects and merchandise.
Before I begin, though, let’s dig a little bit into why you’d want your own unique sayings. There’s been some discussion lately about trademarked phrases – how you can’t sell certain phrases on merchandise because someone has filed a trademark registration.
I touched briefly on trademarks last year in my post about copyrights and trademarks, but my emphasis in that post was primarily on copyright. But the trademark-based points made in that post remain the same: the purpose of trademarking a word or phrase is to protect your branding. If you have a food company called Yummy Yums, for example, you could trademark “Yummy Yums” in the food category so that no other food company can call themselves Yummy Yums. The trademark helps prevent “brand confusion in the marketplace” – so customers aren’t confused thinking some other company’s Yummy Yums Tasty Treats product is from your Yummy Yums company.
So what does all that have to do with clever phrases? Well, there’s a rush these days to file trademark registrations for clever slogans that people are putting on shirts, mugs, and other merchandise. And then those people who get those trademarks (some call them “trademark trolls”) aggressively go after anyone else selling anything using that phrase. However, the phrases being trademarked are, for the most part, NOT being used as a company name or slogan or any other kind of branding.
Example: a company called Fun Mugs might trademark the phrase “This coffee mug is full of booze.” The trademark might or might not be issued (the trademark office is a busy place, and they can’t look over every application with a fine-toothed comb), but even if it was issued, it wouldn’t be legally defendable. The phrase isn’t being used as branding, and doesn’t help to identify the Fun Mugs company in the marketplace. (They could trademark the name Fun Mugs, however. Since that's directly involved in their branding.)
In a perfect world, the trademark registration should have been denied, because the phrase is “ornamental” in use on the mug. These trademark registrations would never stand up in court, but the trademark trolls can be very aggressive in their protection of a phrase, and can hammer small businesses with cease-and-desist letters and intimidating threats, which can terrify home-based creators. So, knowing that, it’s a great idea to come up with your own phrases – then you won’t have to deal with any of these trademark hogs.
Another reason to come up with your own phrases is the fact that a lot of the phrase already out there are all over the marketplace. If you see a phrase on one shirt from one seller, odds are you’ll see it in a dozen other shops from a dozen other sellers. Why put yourself in competition with dozens of other sellers, when you can be the first one to sell something new?
(Granted, if you come up with good phrases, they’ll likely be eventually borrowed and sold by others. But by that point, you’ll have come up with even more phrases, right? Especially if you work with timely phrases – a year from now, the pop culture wheel will have turned, and the phrases that worked back then may very well be outdated now.)
ENOUGH WITH THE BLAH-BLAH, MISSY. HELP ME MAKE THE FUNNY.
You got it! Let’s dive in to some of my techniques in coming up with witty turns of phrase.
First off, we need a topic for our phrase. It could be a sport or activity your kids are involved in. It could be an object or a location. Really, any noun could work. For our first exercise, I’m going to use ballet as my base.
Our first step is to put together a list of words and terms that are associated with ballet. I’ve done a simple Google search for “ballet terms,” and found several sites that offer up huge lists. The key here is to look through the lists for words that are used elsewhere in life. A lot of the ballet terms are in French, and a lot of them aren’t used very much outside of ballet. But there are a few that we can play around with: attitude, en pointe, extension, turn out.
Besides the technical terms, there are lots of words that could be associated with ballet, or dance in general: class, dance, tutu, spin, leap, barre, toes, slippers, and many more.
Taking those terms, we can start to think about using them as homophones – words that are spelled differently or have different meanings, but sound the same. For example, the TU sounds in tutu sound the same as to, too, or two. So you could say, “I’m tutu cool,” meaning “I’m too, too cool.” Or barre, which sounds the same as bar, could be used in something like “raising the barre.”
Attitude is an easy one: “I have a great attitude,” paired with an image of ballet slippers. For those who know ballet, it’s good for a laugh. We could also take the word class and give it the social rank meaning, instead of the educational meaning. “Dancers have TOO much class,” for someone who attends a lot of dance classes.
The ballet term en pointe is pronounced the same as on point, which is frequently used these days. It makes me think of a phrase that’s making the rounds: “my X game is on point,” with X being something you’re really good at. So a simple twist can make it: “my ballet game is en pointe.” (Side note: I cannot believe this isn’t a phrase that’s already being used, but I can’t find any examples of it. So, ballet folks? Use and enjoy!)
We could also do a small replacement: take the term turn out and put it into a phrase that uses some other use of turn plus another word, like turn up, turn down, or turn in. If you have Google set to offer you popular search terms, you can start by typing in “turn up,” and it will offer to complete your search with things like “turn up the volume” and “turn up the heat.” You can even look to pop culture! There’s a song from the last few years called “Turn Down for What.” Change that around to “Turn Out for What,” add some ballet slippers, and you have an edgy ballet pun steeped in pop culture.
Our second example is going to use rhyming replacements. So let’s use a topic that’s of interest to lots of adults: booze!
First, as with our ballet exercise, we’ll put together a list of words that have to do with alcoholic drinks: wine, beer, drink, cocktail, liquor, sauce, spirits, hooch, brew, booze.
(I didn’t come up with all of those off the top of my head. I visited my very good friend, Thesaurus.com. It’s also one of my favorite spots to hit when coming up with font names! You get a feel for the mood of a font as you’re creating it. If it’s a happy font, plug happy into the thesaurus. It’ll spit out tons of words with similar vibes, and hopefully at least one of them not only sounds good, but it’s also not already taken as a font name.)
Next, pull out your rhyming dictionary. (What? You don’t own a rhyming dictionary? Never fear! There’s a great one online at RhymeZone.) Plug in one of your words, and see what comes out! Look for common words that are in heavy use.
First up, we’ll work with the word wine. Some good rhymes are fine, sign, mine, vine, line, and pine. (Some not-so-good rhymes ae words like chine, ligne, quine, and spline. All of them rhyme, but the more common the words, the better. You’ll see why in a moment.)
What we’re going to do here is find a phrase that includes one of our rhymes, and replace the rhyming word with wine. So how do we find phrases? There are a few ways:
You could just use Google, and plug in searches like “song title fine” or “book title fine,” if fine is the word you’re searching for. Not only are song and book titles (as well as TV show and movie names) usually not copyrightable or trademarkable, but we’re changing the title anyway. So “One Fine Day” becomes “One Wine Day.” Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” becomes “Closer to Wine.” To use another rhyming word, The TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway” becomes “Whose Wine Is It Anyway.” (Ironically, the TV show title is actually twisting the title of the 1970s play Whose Life Is It Anyway.)
Another great source of something to rhyme is clichés – those sayings that have been around forever. So let’s set up some more rhymes, this time for beer. I like clear, ear, near, fear, deer, dear, hear, rear, year, tear … this could get to be a long list, so I’ll stop.
There are some cliché databases online, like the WestEgg cliché finder or ClichéList that you can put your words into. (Or, you could always just go to Google with searches like “cliché near” or “cliché fear.”) Here are some examples I found, with rhyming words that can be replaced with humorous results:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself = the only thing we have to beer is beer itself
Near and dear to my heart = near and beer to my heart / beer and dear to my heart
Like a deer in the headlights = like a beer in the headlights
Crocodile tears = crocodile beers (I kind of really want to draw this cartoon, a crocodile with a beer)
Bored to tears = bored to beers
Play it by ear = play it by beer
The list goes on and on. Christmas comes but once a beer! The most wonderful time of the beer! The seven beer itch! Cute as a bug’s beer! No rest for the beery! River of beers! This is all from riffing on one word related to the topic at hand, so it’s possible to put together a huge pile of phrases in very little time. And look, I got two Christmas phrases in there! Those could come in handy for holiday gifts.
I’ve used one or more of these simple techniques to come up with font names, book titles, song titles, slogans, and (of course) t-shirt and mug phrases. Hopefully you can use some of these tips and tricks to work up some unique and fun projects all your own!
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