Pet Phrase Definition

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Pet Phrase
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Pet phrase is an informal term for an expression frequently used by an individual in speech and/or writing.

A pet phrase may be widely known (a cliché, for instance) or peculiar to the individual who employs it.

Examples and Observations

  • "[In the 1955 movie Kiss Me Deadly] 'Va-va-voom! Pretty pow!' is Nick the Greek's running-gag description of Hammer's sports car engines, connoting both their sexual potency and explosive potential (Nick removes two bombs from the Corvette)."
    (Vincent Brook, Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press, 2013)
  • "She'd work as an insurance saleswoman, save up a tidy sum of money, enjoy her days off, gazing at herself in the mirror of some brand-name stores. Who I really am . . . Who I really am . . . would become her pet phrase, but after working for three years, she'd finally realize that the image she'd created of herself wasn't who she really was at all."
    (Shuichi Yoshida, Villain, trans. by Philip Gabriel. Pantheon, 2010)
  • "Whenever his conscience pricked him too keenly he would endeavor to hearten himself with his pet phrase, 'All in a lifetime.' Thinking over things quite alone in his easy-chair, he would sometimes rise up with these words on his lips, and smile sheepishly as he did so. Conscience was not by any means dead in him."
    (Theodore Dreiser, Jennie Gerhardt, 1911)
  • Desegregation "With All Deliberate Speed"
    "Lawyers promptly set to work trying to pin down the origin and significance of with all deliberate speed. And as Supreme Court materials from the Brown [v. Board of Education] years gradually become available, scholars have made a cottage industry of working out how and why the phrase made it into the Brown order. Although the Court in Brown spoke only through its Chief Justice, Earl Warren, this was actually a pet phrase of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who had used the expression deliberate speed in five different opinions since joining the Court in 1939."
    (James E. Clapp and Elizabeth G. Thornburg, Lawtalk. Yale University Press, 2011)
  • "Game Changer" and "Thinking Outside the Box"
    "'We have to look creatively,' said stadium board Chairman Don Snyder, UNLV’s acting president. 'We can’t get in the way of the (convention center project). . . . There’s a tremendous scramble for limited resources.'

    "No longer was Snyder rolling out his pet phrase of 'game changer' to describe the stadium wish. Now, he’s using another phrase—'thinking outside the box'—to describe what it will take to pay for the proposed venue."
    (Alan Snel, "UNLV Stadium Panel Members Begin Puzzling Out Funding Solutions." Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 27, 2014)
  • Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-Ding-Ding!"
    "[Sammy Cahn] and the composer Jimmy Van Heusen were commissioned by [Frank] Sinatra to write a song using Sinatra's catchphrase for his first Reprise album, which was called, not surprisingly, 'Ring-a-Ding-Ding!' The phrase—like Shakespeare's 'Hey nonny nonny'—thumbed its nose at meanings and sincerity."
    (John Lahr, "Sinatra's Song." Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles. University of California Press, 2000)
  • Using Pet Phrases in Writing
    "Repeat a distinctive thought or phrase of dialogue in the story. This connects an earlier part of the story to a later one without having to rely on an overt transitional device. Television shows frequently overuse this technique, giving one character a pet phrase that he repeats ad nauseam. One way to vary the device is to give it a different meaning each time it's used. On Seinfeld, all the principal characters would use the same phrase, often with a different meaning, all in the same scene, creating a device all its own."
    (James V. Smith, Jr., The Writer's Little Helper: Everything You Need to Know to Write Better and Get Published. Writer's Digest Books, 2012)
  • Pet Expressions in 19th-Century England
    "Nobody who has busied himself with watching the peculiarities of contemporary speech can have failed to notice the prevalence of pet expressions. . . . The young man of the day, in particular, has a slow and sluggish mind, and can seldom be troubled to give a careful specification of the particular person or thing which forms the topic of his conversation. He finds it answers better for his purpose to choose some simple generic term which he can use when his thoughts fail him. What the trapeze is to the acrobat, his pet expression is to the modern young man. It serves as a rest to steady himself on and to sustain him until he takes his next awkward flight. Many a fall would that young man have, many an awkward hiatus or wrongly-chosen expression would there be in his discourse was not his pet phrase always near him to be rested on half-way whenever the exigencies of his narrative become too much for his powers of speech.

    "The conversation of the young lady of the period is principally remarkable for its adjectives. Unlike the young man, she has rarely any pet substantive whereby to express most things that come under her notice; it may be that she refrains to use her brother's phrases for fear of being considered slangy. But she rejoices in a curious collection of qualifying adjectives, by the aid of which she manages to make her meaning known. Anything that pleases her, from a bracelet to a sunset, is dabbed by the title of 'quite too lovely,' while its antithesis, whether used in reference to a public calamity or a bad floor at a dance, is pronounced to be 'quite too dreadful.' Any act of kindness bestowed upon this young person wins from her the remark that such attention is 'truly affecting,' and with this pet phrase, and a few more 'lovelys' and 'preciouses,' varied and qualified by the word 'quite' and 'too' being prefixed to them either singly or together, she manages to rub along very well. . . .

    "The 'good talker' has gone out of fashion, and would now be voted a prosy old bore; it is not the fashion to be careful about the way you express a thing, or to appear to be giving yourself much trouble in entertaining your hearers. The words of the modern young man come out in disjointed fragments--much as one might expect a Dutch doll to talk was it blessed with the power of speech; his sentences seem as if they dropped out of his lips without his own volition.

    "He has one favorite word at a time, and he wears it threadbare. If you can understand it, all the better for you; if not, you would not like to show your ignorance by asking; so the young man distinctly scores one there. His pet phrase covers his ignorance or his laziness, and he is borne along with the tide instead of having to row against the stream."
    ("Pet Expressions." Household Words: A Weekly Journal, January 5, 1884)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Pet Phrase Definition." ThoughtCo, Jan. 22, 2018, Nordquist, Richard. (2018, January 22). Pet Phrase Definition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Pet Phrase Definition." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2018).