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English Expressions That Come from Comics

English Expressions That Come from Comics

In recent years, some of the biggest movies and television shows have been based on characters from comics, and comic stories have become a major part of pop culture. However, even before this boom, comics have had a big influence on American society and on the English language.

This article will introduce common words and expressions that even native speakers may not realize originally came from comic books or from comic strips published in daily newspapers. How many do you know?


A very intelligent young boy thinking deeply

"Brainiac" is a combination of "brain" and "maniac." Originally, it was the name of a villain from the Action Comics stories about Superman, and he first appeared in 1958. Brainiac is a very intelligent half-man, half-machine who attempts to collect all of the knowledge in the universe.

Although the Brainiac from these stories is evil, the expression used today simply refers to someone who is very smart.

I’m no brainiac, but even I could solve this puzzle quite easily.


"Goon," originally, was the opposite of a brainiac — a person who is not very intelligent. The modern meaning, however, includes extra nuance, and it's because of a cartoonist named E.C. Segar.

Segar, who is most famous for Popeye, created a comic series called Thimble Theater. This series included a character named Alice the Goon, a large woman who works for an evil pirate. 

Although Alice eventually became a “good” character, goon is used today as a negative word for a strong but unintelligent person who supports an evil boss.

Anyone who doesn't cooperate will get a visit from the boss' goons.


A cluster of green crystals

Here is another term that was born in the Superman comics.

Superman has super strength, speed, vision and hearing ability. And of course, he can fly! However, he does have a weakness, and even people who don’t read comics know what it is: a green material similar to crystal called "kryptonite." 

Kryptonite is the only thing that can hurt Superman. Because of that, the word is often used casually today to refer to a person’s biggest weakness or something that they cannot say no to.

I’m supposed to be on a diet, but German chocolate cake is my kryptonite! Give me a piece!

Alter ego

What do the characters Peter Parker, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne all have in common? They are all the "alter egos" of famous superheroes (specifically, Spider-Man, Superman and Batman).

Just like these characters, who have another life that they keep secret, an alter ego is like a different version of the same person.

This term did not originate from comics; in fact, it comes from a Latin phrase meaning "a second self." However, it has become more common because of the popularity of superheroes who hide their true identities behind masks or other disguises.

Casually, people use this term to refer to people who seem to have more than only one life or personality.

He’s normally pretty serious, but whenever Ben starts drinking, his wild alter ego comes out.

It is often used in a joking way.

We don’t believe her life is as quiet as it seems; she probably has an alter ego as an international spy, like James Bond.

Security blanket

"Security blankets" (sometimes called “comfort blankets”) are blankets or soft items carried by young children to make them feel comfortable.

Although this term existed earlier, it gained more popularity due to the character Linus from the famous Peanuts comics. Linus always carries his blanket with him, but this blanket represents mental comfort more than the physical kind.

This is the nuance the expression has today; security blankets for adults can be anything that makes someone feel safe and secure.

This music is my security blanket; listening to it relaxes me no matter how stressed I may feel.


Have you ever used the music app Shazam? If you don’t know the name of a song you hear playing somewhere, hold up your phone and it can identify it for you — almost like magic!

The app’s name is not a coincidence. In 1940, a story in Whiz Comics introduced a wizard named Shazam who gives magical powers to a boy named Billy. From that day on, Billy would shout the word “Shazam” whenever he wanted to transform into his super alter ego.

Since then, it has become a “magic word” in casual conversations; whenever someone wants to emphasize that something has been done very quickly or mysteriously, they may say this word.

Wow! How did you fix that so quickly?

Back to the drawing board

People use this expression when their original plan has failed and they need to develop a new strategy.

It became a common phrase after it was introduced by cartoonist Peter Arno in a comic that appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1941.

I really thought that idea would work.
So did I. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

Keeping up with the Joneses

“Keeping up with the Joneses” is the idea of competing with your neighbors or colleagues to have the biggest house, nicest car, fanciest clothes, etc. 

This expression is also the name of a comic strip that was created by Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. It’s about the McGinis family and their struggle to match the lifestyle of their neighbors, the Jones family, who seem to be more successful.

This is a common expression today, and it is likely the inspiration for the American reality TV series Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which ran from 2007 to 2021.

Phil is very happy and comfortable with his life; he is not interested in keeping up with the Joneses.


A young newlywed couple holding hands and looking toward the sky

“Newlyweds” are a couple who has recently gotten married. The meaning is easy to understand when you know that “wed” is a verb that means “to marry.”

Although it is common today, in 1907, it was simply the name of a comic strip about a new couple called The Newlyweds and Their Baby. However, the couple in the story was actually called “Mr. and Mrs. Newlywed”!

The story was created by George McManus and is considered to be the very first American comic strip about a family. US comics are not only about superheroes!


A “worrywart” is a person who is always worrying about something and is rarely relaxed. It became a popular expression due to a character created by cartoonist J.R. Williams in the 1920s. The character was called the Worry Wart because his bad behavior made everyone around him worry!

Don’t be such a worrywart; we have plenty of time to get to the airport before our flight.


Have you heard any of these words or expressions before? Every one of them is common in daily English conversations. They are all proof of the power of art to influence culture and even the way people talk. Try using one in your next English chat!