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I was watching movie John Carter where there was some dialogue like this:

— What happened here?
— Zodanga happened.

Here Zodanga was a bad guy in the movie.

I don't understand how a guy can happen at some place, like it was said in that conversation? We generally use happened like this:

— What happened to you?
— Oh! I have been suffering from a head ache or
    met an accident or
    I haven't been sleeping lately,

but we never say "Silvia happened to me" (as if Silvia was a bad person here).

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To happen: (v. Int) to be, come, go, etc., casually or by chance: My friend happened along. thefreedictionary.com/Happened –  Josh61 Jul 24 at 6:20
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@Josh That's a way the verb happen can be used of people, but not the meaning in the asker’s context. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 6:41
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"Silvia happened to me" is fine. –  Kris Jul 24 at 8:48
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@JoeBlow, its useless comment, totally out of the discussion. –  paul Jul 24 at 12:15
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@paul I'm not sure it's useless. The answer to a question like this might be "It's an accepted construction now, but it wouldn't have been 30 years ago." Asking when or where it happened makes sense, since the site is about the English language and usage, and whether "X happened" is "legitimate" usage will vary depending on when and where it's used. –  Joshua Taylor Jul 24 at 15:16

7 Answers 7

up vote 55 down vote accepted

Formally this can be analysed as an example of metonymy, a figure of speech in which a term that denotes one thing is used to refer to a related thing [Wikipedia].

Here, the name Zodanga (which normally refers to a person) is used to refer to his actions (which are a related thing).

— What happened here?
— Zodanga arrived and caused mayhem.

The “causing mayhem” is what happened; Zodanga is so closely related to that (as he was the cause) that his name is used to refer to the whole situation.

Similarly with Silvia in your example. It’s actually perfectly possible to use that construction if Silvia has a reputation for doing something particular. You refer to the person, and imply that what has happened is what they are famous for.

It is correct (as you note in the question) that it’s normally limited to bad events, and becomes slightly humorous when applied unexpectedly to someone’s good reputation:

— What happened here?
— J. Paul Getty happened. That’s why they’re all waving $50 bills.

Even when used of bad events, this particular construction—using a person’s name metonymically with the verb happen—is rather informal and should be used mainly in informal contexts. Other types of metonymy naturally have their own level of formality, with some being very frequent in more formal or technical contexts; for example:

HSBC dropped nearly ten points yesterday

– is something you’re quite likely to hear in a business meeting discussing stock prices. It is metonymy because HSBC here refers not to the bank or the corporation itself, but to the price of HSBC shares.

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6  
@Paul Please read the Wikipedia article on metonymy linked to. Metonymy is just a type of figure of speech. If you're in a business meeting talking about stock prices and say, “HSBC dropped nearly ten points yesterday”, that's metonymy as well, because HSBC is referring not to the bank or the corporation itself, but to the price of HSBC shares. This particular form of metonymy, though, using a person’s name to refer to their associated actions, is definitely informal and joking, and may not be appropriate in a business meeting. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 6:45
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@JanusBahsJacquet, nice example...I understood now. –  paul Jul 24 at 6:53
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@Josh Yes, that's why I used that example. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 24 at 7:00
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@Janus Feel free to edit that into the answer. It deserves more permanence than a comment endows. –  Andrew Leach Jul 24 at 7:03
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I think it's noteworthy that this form is most often used with names of places, (in)famous for one particular event: “… then Fukushima happened“, “… then Watergate happened”, “… then Woodstock happened”, etc. –  Emmet Jul 25 at 7:02

In addition to Andrew's very fine answer, I'd like to point out that 'Person's name happened' can also signify the start of a relationship or meeting someone who made an impression.

I was just living my life, and then, all of a sudden, Silvia happened.

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...and judging by the Silvias I know, boy do they happen ;) –  Bakabaka Jul 24 at 10:58

It's slightly humorous and playing on the ungrammatical-ness. Something like, "Zodanga is such a larger-than-life person, that when I say 'Zodanga happened,' you understand he is a force and know exactly what I mean." Perhaps most analogous to "a tornado happened," as a tornado is a noun whose mere presence indicates event-like qualities.

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+1 for relating "a tornado happened". –  Kevin Fegan Jul 25 at 22:11

I would also like to point out that Zodanga was, in fact, the name of a city in the story (John Carter is based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs). This doesn't invalidate the accepted answer, except perhaps the example.

— Zodanga happened.

— Zodanga arrived and caused mayhem.

— Zodanga's military arrived and caused mayhem.

The second version, which is given in the accepted answer, is actually still acceptable, as long as you realize that Zodanga is still a metonym for "Zodanga's military" or perhaps "Sab Than," the leader of Zodanga and the name of the primary antagonist of the movie.

An analogous situation is often heard in U.S. political news, where you might hear "the White House" in reference to the current President or his administration, "Capitol Hill" in reference to U.S. Congress, or even "Washington," which actually means Washington, D.C. and refers to the U.S. Government in general.

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Considering in the John Carter movie that Zodanga is a mobile city, it can certainly "arrive" somewhere. Potentially, it could even cause mayhem without involvement of the military (f.e. by running over something). –  Brian S Jul 25 at 19:34

BTW when non-native-english-speakers are asking about an idiom - we often forget to point out the obvious!

This figure of speech is a humorous twist on an earlier figure of speech ..

"Shit happens."

Fully explained here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shit_happens

Now, "shit happens" was a catchy phrase, and people standing changing it to a nice word (which was kind of cool), notably "magic happens" (I'd say that would have been a t-shirt design at first, maybe) and "kindness happens."

You then - I believe it followed in this order, but I'm not certain - people introduced this cool new use " happened", meaning, as Andrew explains, the characteristic actions (usually mayhem) that you associate with that fictional character (or real person) happened.

It would be fascinating to know the first use of this .. you can imagine it coming from, say, an action movie.

Indeed there are other variations as Bakabaka explains. Another variation is with, oh, cultural phenomenon. Oh, you might be explaining the transition in film from the new wave to pop effects movies, and you'd say something like "Everything was going along nicely with Goddard and Truffaut - and then Jaws happened."

Just as with the "Silvia" example, you tend to use it for "explosive, dramatic" things, I think.

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Do you have any evidence that "Shit happens" is the origin of this phrase? It doesn't seem at all intuitive to me. This sounds more like folk etymology. –  chapka Jul 24 at 18:15
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I don't think this has anything to do with "Shit happens." –  user36720 Jul 24 at 23:06
    
Hi @chapka - I absolutely totally agree with you that I could be completely wrong. But it really sounds like that to me, and (not that it means anything) I just canvassed a couple others and they agreed. So, I've asked a question on a site where someone might know! english.stackexchange.com/questions/186991 –  Joe Blow Jul 25 at 8:48
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If you are not sure and are guessing and have no proof, then your use of phrases like "[it] is a humourous twist on..." is misleading. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jul 25 at 16:52
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+1 - even if it isn't wholly accurate, I believe the phrase had to contribute to the popularity of the <proper noun> happened idiom. Additionally, the linked wiki article traces the origin of the minced oath form to a radio show in 1941. Media, especially broadcast, at that time was very conservative, meaning the origin of the phrase probably dates back at least a decade into the Great Depression. Anyways, I think the phrasing the asker is interested in severely post-dates the phrase Joe Blow proposes, certainly in terms of popularity. –  Patrick M Aug 1 at 17:28

Remember the once-running Yahoo chat rooms? Now:

A: What happened to Yahoo chat rooms?

B: Facebook happened!

The same story here.

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If someone doesn't understand "Zodanga happened", why would they understand this? –  user36720 Jul 25 at 19:58

I am intrigued by the question and impressed by some of the detailed answers. As a newcomer to this site I would suggest that this is loose language that one might well find in films and newspapers - a sort of shorthand. Andrew L above gives a full answer and I go along with much of that. 'happened' here implies that Zadango has a known track record that will be recognised by viewers and if that is not the case the word attracts interest. Viewers will be curious to learn more. Zandango 'came along and caused mayhem' would be dull. I doubt that 'happened' in this context stands up to much grammatical scrutiny. Why not take it just as a 'happening' or event. The sense is clear.

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