Grammar Moses: The Fonz literally jumped the shark

  • The Fonz jumping a shark on "Happy Days" in the 1970s led to a coinage for TV shows that go bad.

    The Fonz jumping a shark on "Happy Days" in the 1970s led to a coinage for TV shows that go bad. AP File Photo/Oct. 27, 2005

Updated 6/6/2021 4:51 PM

If you were a fan of "Happy Days" in the 1970s, you might understand what the idiom "jumping the shark" means.

My guess is most of you know what the phrase means -- but not where it came from.


Just four years into its 11-season run, "Happy Days" writers thought it would be a great idea to have Arthur "Fonzi" Fonzarelli get on a pair of water skis -- leather motorcycle jacket and all -- and jump over a shark. Yes, really.

It was a pretty clear sign of desperation. They did it for sweeps week, when many ill-advised plot twists happen.

So when a storyline goes all kablooey and evil twins start entering the scene, you say a show has "jumped the shark."

American idioms are pretty easy to figure out. That's because many benefit from not having existed through major upheavals in language and way of life.

But some very old idioms have stood the test of time, and many of them come from just two sources: the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.

The Bible

Here is a baker's dozen, courtesy of the Bible and a sprightly analysis from

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• "At the eleventh hour." (Gospel of St. Matthew 20:1-16)

• "At your wit's end." (Psalm 107, 23-27)

• "The blind leading the blind." (Matthew 15:14)

• "By the skin of your teeth." (Job 19:20)

• "To cast pearls before swine." (Matthew 7:6)

• "Eat, drink and be merry." (Ecclesiastes 8:15.)

• "To fall by the wayside." (Luke 8:5)

• "A fly in the ointment." (Ecclesiastes 10:1)

• "The land of milk and honey." (Exodus 3:1-22)

• "A leopard cannot change its spots." (Jeremiah 13:23)

• "Like a lamb to the slaughter." (Isaiah 53:7)

• "To move mountains." (1 Corinthians 13:2)


• "The writing on the wall." (Daniel 5:1-31)

The Bard

And here are several that originated in Shakespeare's writings, courtesy of

• "Dish fit for the gods" ("Julius Caesar")

• "Foaming at the mouth" ("Julius Caesar")

• "Hot blooded" ("The Merry Wives of Windsor")

• "In stitches" ("Twelfth Night")

• "Green-eyed monster" ("Othello")

• "Wearing your heart on your sleeve"


• "One fell swoop" ("Macbeth")

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

Reader Augie Tonne had a question about quotes in a pair of sports stories: "Corry ... is a relationship-driven coach that knows how to push players ... " and "I could care less that it wasn't a perfect game."

In the first one, shouldn't "that" be "who"? he asked. And in the second, shouldn't it be "could" instead of "couldn't"?

Well, yes and no, Augie.

You are correct about what the people quoted should have said.

I encourage our reporters to clean up "wannas," "shouldas" and "gonnas," because they're simply imprecise pronunciations. But I don't want them to clean up people's word choice in quotations.

If sports reporters had made a practice of cleaning up word choice in quotations, Yogi Berra would have been just another catcher.

Gnome sayin'?

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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