There’s a form in current English

Then <X> happened or <X> happened,

where you transition the name of a thing (a person, a fictitious character, or object), to mean the dramatic effects of the arrival of the "thing".

The thing in question is so big its NAME refers not only to the thing or person itself but to a whole system of events, culture, or actions associated with it.

As an example in http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/magazine/george-lucas-red-tails.html we find "then Star Wars happened".

Well now, since I am old enough I lived through the evolution of this phrase in popular culture, I PERSONALLY ASSUMED THAT:

  1. You had the phrase shit happens.

  2. People (in the 80s?) started turning that around to <nice-word-here> happens, notably magic happens.

  3. Subsequently the form <NAME> happened was used when describing action movie characters, sport teams, dot com booms and the like.


Can anyone find any information on the actual origin of the name happens form?

(Note that the origin of "shit happens" is now well understood and documented. The question at hand is is, how did the quirky "and then name happened... originate? Was it (my guess) a play on "shit happens" -- or am I just totally wrong to assume that?)

PS: Tragically, the OED seems not to have cottoned on to it yet: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/84057

  • 4
    Offhand, I'd say 'John happened' (stress on the name) is a witty response to 'What happened?' Jul 25, 2014 at 8:55
  • I don't see why you say "OED hasn't cottoned on yet". Their Defn 1.b.a says More emphatically: to occur by chance rather than design; to come about without (obvious) cause. Freq. expressing a resigned attitude to any state of affairs or course of events. Cf. shit happens. And their first citation for this "nuance" is 1833. There's no reason to think XXX happened derives from shit happens in any "objective" sense (though I'm sure in the minds of some current speakers, that's what they're echoing when they say things like "Parenthood happens"). Jul 25, 2014 at 12:36
  • hi Fumble. regarding the form "shit happens". the OED covers it. regarding the form "Star Wars happens" the OED does not cover it. Are you familiar with that usage, as in english.stackexchange.com/questions/186748 ? There is utterly no connection to "to occur by chance" or "to come about without (obvious) cause" or the "resigned attitude" sense. "shit happens" is exactly the "resigned attitude" send. the very recent slang form "Star Wars happened" or "Zodanga happened" has no connection to those three usages.
    – Fattie
    Jul 25, 2014 at 12:40
  • Note to all on Safe For Work question titles: please see meta.english.stackexchange.com/questions/975/…
    – Andrew Leach
    Jul 25, 2014 at 12:43
  • {indeed, in the usage "and then star wars happened", the word "happened" is (obviously) being used identically to the way it is used in: "and then the startling and dramatic cultural phenomenon and business success related to star wars happened". So, by all means, "happened" is not being used unusually at all in the "Zodanga happened" form: it's the other word being used unusually. When OED catches up with this they will explain that in this usage, happened implies transitioning a <thing> to "the startling effects of thing".}
    – Fattie
    Jul 25, 2014 at 12:43

3 Answers 3


Here is the entry for "Shit (Stuff) happens" in Doyle, Mieder, and Shapiro, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012, Yale University Press):

Shit (Stuff) happens.

1944 Lee Thayer, Five Bullets (New York: Dodd Mead) 232: "Was it just chance? Is there such a thing as pure chance? As 'Vic and Sade' are wont to say, 'Stuff happens.' Yes. Stuff does happen" ("Vic and Sade" was a comic radio show popular in the 1930s and 1940s). 1969 Jean Hersey and Robert Hersey, These Rich Years (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons) 236: "I always like to remember the simple comment of an intelligent friend of ours in the face of a family crisis that came out of the blue. 'Oh, well, stuff happens.' she said with a sigh as she began to plan the next step ahead." 1978 Wesley Brown, Tragic Magic (New York: Random House) 98: "Once you know the reason why shit happens, you shouldn't have to ask the question anymore." 1983 Connie Eble, "UNC-CH Campus Slang—Spring 1983" ({Chapel Hill NC: for the author} Ditto-reproduced): "Shit happens" (saying collected from a student). YBQ Modern Proverbs (83); Mieder (2005a); Rees (2005) 6. The proverb commonly expresses a sort of stoic resignation at the vagaries and sorrows of life. Even though the citations for "Stuff happens" antedate the ones for "Shit happens," it is not unreasonable to suspect, in some instances at least, that stuff represents a euphemistic replacement of shitstuff having been more acceptable in print (and in polite oral discourse as well). The "Shit happens" form achieved notoriety in the 1980s when its appearance on bumper stickers occasioned arrests and criminal prosecutions—giving rise to allusive (anti-proverbial) variants that substituted for shit the name of some disliked public figure or group.

The same reference work states that the allied phrase "Shit happens and then you die" emerged by 1991, as a paraphrase of dialogue from the film River's Edge.

As a side note, I observe that, when people get together to discuss a stunning development at work (for example), someone may say, by way of breaking the ice (or simply acknowledging the obvious), "Well, that just happened." I've been aware of this usage for only a couple of years, but it may be considerably older than that. I have no idea whether it began as a play on the truism "Shit [or stuff] happens," or whether it emerged independently of that phrase.


UPDATE: To supplement the information cited above, I ran Google Books searches for “shit happens,” “stuff happens,” and various other “X happens” phrases. For the first two phrases, there wasn’t much beyond what The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs reported; but other phrases (notably “war happens,” “magic happens,” "life happens," and “[queer] things happen”) go back at least to the early decades of the twentieth century. On the strength of those results, I suspect that formulation of the “X happens” wording arose independently of “shit [or stuff] happens.”

With regard to the “then X happened” wording that the OP associates with “then Star Wars happened,” I investigated a single phrase of this type—“Vietnam happened”—and found relevant Google Books matches from 1970 and 1976. This form may go back considerably farther than 1970—though I haven’t run any relevant searches to find out—and in any case it may have no connection to the popular expression “shit [or stuff] happens.”

Following are some interesting matches that my Google Books searches turned up for the phrases “shit happens,” “stuff happens,” and “Vietnam happened,” as well as for the “X happens” alternatives “war happens,” “[queer] things happen,” “trouble happens,” “magic happens,” and “life happens.” I’ve put the relevant search phrase in each excerpt into boldface for ease of identification.

Shit Happens

From Carl Werthman, “The Police as Perceived by Negro Boys,” in The American City: A Source Book of Urban Imagery (1968):

Finally this cop’s buddy say, ‘You want to run them in Joe? They ain’t really done nothing.’ So then Joe stops. He say, ‘Now all you black Africans pick up your spears and go home! I don’t want you guys walking up the street!’ We just coming up the street like we always do coming from the show. That shit happens all the time. There ain’t a day that we don’t get roused like that. (Negro, 16 years old)

Stuff Happens

From National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (U.S.), Proceedings of the Annual Conference (1966) [combined snippets]:

We have a long way to go. Perhaps we are in a developmental state similar to that of psychology at the turn of the century. But we cannot respond to present requirements and possibilities by turning the clock off. The times will not permit it.

As my four year old son Merrill observed the other day, "Stuff happens.” (Laughter) Stuff is happening all around us. (Laughter)

From Laird Koenig, The Dozens (1969):

STAN. In revolutions stuff happens, you know? Like a bayonet. Or a machine gun. Or somebody hits him with something.

From Ted Thackrey, The Thief: The Autobiography of Wayne Burk as Told to Red Thackrey (1971) [combined snippets]:

“The church says there’s no divorce.”

“Yeah. Sure, baby. Only—sometimes stuff happens and—just because of the law and everything—people got to get them. No matter what."

Vietnam Happened

From an unidentified article in Newsweek, volume 75, issues 18–26 (1970) [combined snippets]:

SDS could hardly be called revolutionary back then. The civil-rights struggle was the order of the day, and "participatory democracy" was the style. Somehow it seemed to work in the early days: long, rambling, talky meetings wound up in decisions that appeared to have welled up from the group, not to have been imposed from above. But then a number of things happened that led the movement to alter course.

Most important of all, Vietnam happened.

From Allen Freeman Davis & Harold D. Woodman, Conflict and Consensus in Modern American History, Volume 2 (1976) [combined snippets]:

Rather than a new departure in our way of looking at the world, it was quite consistent with the unexpressed principles of our foreign policy. Vietnam happened because it was time for it to happen, because we had the military power to make it happen.

War Happens

From Rose W. Lane, Henry Ford’s Own Story: How a Farmer Boy Rose to the Power That Goes With Many Millions Yet Never Lost Touch With Humanity (1917):

"Here is a world where war happens," we say. "If a war should happen to us what would we do? Let us begin to prepare for war. Let us take war into our calculations. Let us be practical."

And Henry Ford, reading the papers, listening to the talk of the men in the streets, saw the object lesson of his great organization disregarded.

From House Committee on Foreign Affairs, American Neutrality Policy (1939) [combined snippets]:

Mr. JOHNSON. When does the freedom come in, when we pass the law in the first instance, this freedom of choice? I am trying to find out where that enters the picture.

As I understand it, we pass the law that says automatically when a certain thing happens, that certain things should be done, and then war happens and that is automatically done. Then when do you exercise your freedom of choice?

From Lewis O. Anderson, “Making Bogey of Nationalism” in National Republic (1940) [snippet]:

War happens, so it is echoed back and forth, because one nation wants something another nation wants. On the contrary, war happens because a nation does not know what it wants. A nation without vision perishes. War is a mode of perishing, a symptom of critical illness.

From Protestant Digest, volume 3, issue 10 (1941) [combined snippets]:

It is not enough (moreover it is superfluous) for us to argue the pros and cons of going into the war or staying out. Our State Department is unlikely to consult us. Even our State Department has less discretion in this decision than many people think. War happens. The time to stop it has long passed when it arrives. Like an iceberg in a fog it looms too suddenly for the reversing of the engines to avoid the crash. War is the inescapable consequence of the kind of "peace" which precedes it.

Things Happen

From H.G. Wells, Tono Bungay (1909):

That’s what Wimblehurst is! Cold Mutton Fat!—dead and stiff! And I’m buried in it up to the arm pits. Nothing ever happens, nobody wants things to happen ‘scept me! Up in London, George, things happen.

And again, much later in the same book:

I finished and hesitated on some vague foolish lie. “No,” I said, a little ashamed of the truth. “Do you? I’ve been too busy.”

“I’m just beginning—just as you were then. Things happen.”

From Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941):

An army post in peacetime is a dull place. Things happen, but then they happen over and over again.

From Henry Miller, My Anchorage,” in Tropic of Capricorn] (1961), reproduced in Henry Miller on Writing (1964):

It came without effort, born of a second, a miracle you might say, except that everything which happens is miraculous. Things happen or they don't happen, that's all. Nothing is accomplished by sweat and struggle.

Queer Things Happen

From Henry F. Reddall, Wit and Humor of the American Bar (1905):

Some queer things happen in the New Jersey courts sometimes.

From a letter from Harriet L. Keeler to Henry C. King (January 17, 1912), reproduced in Harriet L. Keeler, Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them (1900/2005):

I appreciate all the good wishes that are coming to me. Queer things happen in this life, and one of the queerest is that which has happened to me.

From B.M. Bower, Good Indian (1912):

“I suppose I’ve got to deliver that immediately, at once, without delay,” she said. “There’s supposed to be an answer. Chicken, some queer things happen in this business. Here’s that weak-chested, hollow-chested Saunders, that seems to have just life enough to put in about ten hours a day reading ‘The Duchess,’ getting cipher messages like the hero of a detective story. And sending them, too, by the way. We operators are not supposed to think; but all the same—“

From I.A.R. Wylie, “The Inheritors,” in Good Housekeeping (August 1922):

“Well, I’d have thought it funny, too—eight years ago. If anyone’d told me, I’d have laughed, too. But you never know. Queer things happen."

“Queer things,” she echoed. “Queer things.”

Trouble Happens

From Arnold Palmer, Arnold Palmer’s Golf Book (1961) [snippet]:

But, as I said at the beginning of the chapter, trouble happens to everybody.

Magic Happens

From Bliss Carman, The Making of Personality (1906):

But to feel the enchantment of their rhythms, the sorcery of their complex harmonious movements, as they wheel through space in their silent arabesques; to follow and obey their delicate law and yet modify their evolutions at pleasure; to produce new and almost infinite varieties of flying curves out of their few elementary figures, is to experience the veritable artistic rapture, and be carried out of oneself into the region of true creation where magic happens and beauty is born.

From Bronislaw Malinowski, Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935) [combined snippets]:

Some of these questions we are in a position to answer. Let us start from the purpose of magic. Imaginary it is from our point of view, but is this a reason for dismissing it as socially and culturally irrelevant? Certainly not. Magic happens in a world of its own, but this world is real to the natives.

From an unnamed book review in The Catholic Library World, volumes 23 & 24 (1951) [snippet]:

Two little girls, Delphine and Marinette, live with their mother and father somewhere in France. Magic happens and the animals on the farm talk, but all the people are lovable.

From Current Biography Yearbook (1960) [snippet]:

When it comes to designing, the fabric is my master. I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t even sew, but put a piece of fabric in my hands and magic happens” (Christian Science Monitor, May 18, 1959).

Life Happens

From “Microcosms” in The Century Magazine (July 1902):

Life happens to some folks only in novels.

From R.A. Scott-Thomas, The Making of Literature (1929):

Whatever philosophic language we may use or discard, it is this reality from which the artist starts, the reality that we all objectify as life. It presents itself to us with all the fortuitousness of fact, fragments of experience that come upon us in the illogical time sequence of a day’s events—waking, a bath, breakfast, a catastrophe discussed in the newspaper, reflections about catastrophe, a telephone bell, letters written, a caller, more reflections, more ill-assorted atoms of experience. That is how life happens—impression following impression—and that is all it seems to be for Croce till the mind begins its conjuring-tricks.

From M. Lulofs, The Other World (1935) [combined snippets]:

First the Deli General Trading Company; then the Customs House, where I was a clerk. Then some salesrooms. Then I was an inspector on the railway; and now I'm making parasols. I'm still alive, as you see. Why should I work myself to death? Life happens only once, Vos; at least, let's say this life. At any rate, I'm my own boss.

From Oswald Schwarz, The Psychology of Sex (1949) [snippet]:

In short, life happens to animals but Man is the maker of his destiny.

From Robert E. Spiller, A Time of Harvest: American Literature, 1910–1960 (1962) [snippet]:

Each hero approaches the condition of Chaplin and Keaton, who seem innocent of previous experience. Life happens to all of them for the first time. Its unseen threats are bewildering, complex, unnerving —Indians in ambush, the consequences of crime, the possibilities of corruption, and even the results of enjoying a reputation as a fast draw.

  • Sven, thanks for that fantastic information "shit happens". Just as you say, it seems to remain a mystery whether the "<name> happens" form indeed originates from "shit happens." I was probably foolish to assume that is the case - I fear it rests as an etymological mystery. Thanks again!
    – Fattie
    Aug 1, 2014 at 8:54
  • At the risk of drifting off topic, I remember hearing “Eat shit and die!” as a curse in the late 1980s. And the most common “… and then you die” quotes seem to be “Life’s a bitch and then you die” and “Life sucks, and then you die” – and I’m pretty sure that the “bitch” one was already in common use by 1988. Aug 1, 2014 at 17:12
  • Hi Scott, yes that is incredibly off topic. Sven: regarding your now amazingly information rich answer. What do you say .. perhaps you should add a conclusion at the end, with your own opinion on the situation based on the vast research? I'm intimately enjoying every detail, but, I'm struggling to synthesize. Thoughts?
    – Fattie
    Aug 2, 2014 at 19:40
  • Since I didn't expect anyone to read past the first paragraph of my "UPDATE," I put my conclusion there, at the end of that paragraph: "On the strength of those results, I suspect that formulation of the 'X happens' [wording] arose independently of 'shit [or stuff] happens.'" In particular, I consider it very likely that "magic happens" antedates "shit happens" by several decades at least; I'd hate to think, though, that it actually inspired the latter formulation.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 2, 2014 at 21:10
  • Sven - one particular point, can you confirm that in your opinion based on your research, in particular "magic happens" DID NOT come after "shit happens". {I, perhaps totally incorrectly, thought that magic happens was, specifically, a "funny response too" shit happens.} Thanks again!
    – Fattie
    Aug 3, 2014 at 13:52

Tense is crucial here. In the present continuous—shit happens, for example—the speaker is not referring to any specific past event, but reflecting philosophically on the general nature of life in response to something undesirable happening, and expressing the idea that we shouldn't be surprised, life's like that. Perhaps the speaker is having a drink with a friend who's just been fired. But in looking back later, no one would say, "I used to work there, but then shit happened".

In contrast, the past tense of <person> or <star wars> happened reflects on the striking effect a specific person, event etc had, at one single moment in history, perhaps to the extent that things will never be the same again, on a scale ranging from the personal ("I always thought I was going to travel the world one day, but then Jill happened") to the global ("Hitler happened").

As you say,

The thing in question is so big its NAME refers not only to the thing or person itself but to a whole system of events, culture, or actions associated with it.

The word happen isn't being used in any special way here; <X> happens and <X> happened are unrelated, they just both happen to include happen.

  • Your first two paragraphs: an outstanding point. Well now, what you say in the last paragraph: I'm not sure that's true, Reg. Many "common forms" or coinages are quite sensible in and of themselves; if we found an example before it was "coined" it would still make sense. Im afraid I feel there's a sense in which "star wars happened" "vietnam happened" is a "form", a "common form" ... it's kind of a witty sophisticated way to get across that idea (ie, the idea: The thing in question is so big its NAME refers not only to the thing or person itself but to a whole system of events) However..
    – Fattie
    Aug 3, 2014 at 13:52
  • 2
    .. I absolutely understand what you are saying: it might not actually be a 'figure of speech', a 'witty form' - it might just be, like, a sentence :O
    – Fattie
    Aug 3, 2014 at 13:56

From @Sven's answer it certainly looks like "stuff happens" pre-dates "shit happens". That doesn't answer the question, rather passes the buck to "stuff".

That said, I feel there's a smooth and logical transition from "[event] happens" to "[object] happens", given some objects (like the Star Wars movies) are linked to a particular event (their release). So I'd guess (no sources I could find, unfortunately) that the phrase didn't come about through any one particular route.

  • It's fascinating we now think it's possibly the other way around from what I at first assumed!!
    – Fattie
    Aug 2, 2014 at 19:41

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