A few weeks ago, Word Stories looked at the interesting case of the usual suspects and how the origin of the phrase can be pinpointed to a very precise origin: the film Casablanca. Although being able to identify such an exact source is rare – the best we can do usually is to suppose that a word, say, derived from a certain foreign language in a certain century – it’s not exceptional. One film which gave English not just a catchphrase or an expression but a singular word is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and that word is paparazzi.

Just by looking at the word you can guess it is of Italian origin and if you know anything about Italian plural marking you’ll also see that paparazzi is the plural of the singular paparazzo.

In La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the name of a character, a photographer who goes to great lengths to take snaps of American stars.

Paparazzo as a surname is common in Italy, particularly Calabria, but there are a couple of theories about why Fellini chose it.

It could have been borrowed from a travel book titled By the Ionian Sea, by George Gissing, in which appears an Italian hotel owner called Coriolano Paparazzo.  On the other hand, paparazzo, in the Abruzzi dialect, means ‘clam’ which perhaps alludes to the opening and closing of a camera lens. What’s more, the –azzo suffix has negative connotations in Italian.

Whatever the reasoning behind naming the character, something about the word stuck so there was obviously a need for it in our lexicon. Fellini himself said it suggests ‘a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. In fact, the film was released in 1960 and just one year later it was being used in the sense we recognise today:

Kroscenko…is a paparazzo, one of a ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point-blank range.

The Usual Suspects

It’s not very often you can pinpoint the origin of a word or phrase to one specific speaker at one specific moment in time. The usual suspects might sound like an ordinary phrase which could have been first put together by anyone at any time but that’s not the case; its origin lies, quite specifically, in the 1942 film Casablanca.

Of course, the film industry has presented English with reams of memorable quotes and catchphrases and none more so than Casablanca, the source of those famous lines ‘here’s looking at you kid’, ‘play it Sam’ and ‘we’ll always have Paris’. It’s not just a great classic film; it’s a veritable catchphrase treat.

The usual suspects features in the line ‘Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects’, delivered by Claude Rains as the character Captain Louis Renaud, the Vichy French police inspector of the Moroccan city. He gives this order to appear to act responsibly although he knows that the usual suspects, that is the customary lot, the crooks you would expect, cannot possibly be guilty of the shooting since he saw Rick, played by Humphrey Bogart, pull the trigger right in front of him moments before.

The prevalence of the phrase may have become more widespread thanks to another film, Bryan Singer’s 1995 US movie The Usual Suspects.

Of all the quotes in all the scenes in all of Casablanca, the usual suspects is probably the one which is the least associated with the film and the most engrained into everyday language.