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Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure

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Soujirou: Oh, back then, Bisonnote  was dressed up as Mike Tyson. Pretty cool.
Konata: Who's Mike Tyson?
[later that day]
Soujirou: Today, I felt the generation gap in a deep and very personal way.
Lucky Star Manga vol. 6

What was whose sled?

This is a subversion of Pop-Cultural Osmosis. When used in-universe, it's usually as a means of showing the difference between people from two different groups (usually generations) in which a character from Group A makes a pop culture reference (or mentions a famous person or movie or work) and one of four things happens:

  1. "Who's X?" — The person from Group B doesn't get it at all because of a failure of Pop-Cultural Osmosis. This seems to be the most common.
  2. "Oh, X! He was in Y, right!" — The person from Group B gets it wrong because of a failure of Pop-Cultural Osmosis (and they are guessing).
  3. "Wait, Y was based on a real X?" — The person from Group B gets it wrong because of a clash of Pop-Cultural Osmosis, and he's referencing something that referenced the original, referenced a reference of the original, etc.
  4. "Impressive, you know X... oh, you don't" — The person from Group B gets it wrong because of a clash of Pop-Cultural Osmosis, when person A is referencing something more recent (the reverse of 3).

This can happen because the person from Group B:

  • is a bumpkin or is otherwise cut off from modern pop culture;
  • is an outsider of the clique or subculture or is an immigrant or foreigner;
  • is old-fashioned and not knowledgeable of current popular culture;
  • is young and the bit of pop culture is (relatively) old;
  • is amusingly displaced from the time of origin;
  • simply is not familiar with a genre or a work;
  • the work itself is thought to be so popular that all who know it think it will be passed on through Pop-Cultural Osmosis — with the result that it isn't.
  • just is not interested in pop culture.

Note that any example can go both ways (for example, someone too old to know Britney Spears or The Backstreet Boys may have fond memories of I Love Lucy or Herman's Hermits).

This, by the way, is the reason character-named tropes are often renamednote . For example, if you're not familiar with original Sherlock Holmes tales, you won't know who Inspector Lestrade is; if not well-read in 19th-century French literature (or Broadway musicals), Inspector Javert may be unknown to you.

With the advent of cable television, the Internet, and more things to do in less time, this is becoming more and more Truth in Television. Most everyone in the US watched I Love Lucy because it was one of three television choices; not everyone watched American Idol because it was one of a thousand television choices (and hundreds of thousands of entertainment choices).

One of the many, many reasons for Not Self-Explanatory.

Compare Once Original, Now Common, Adaptation Displacement, Forgotten Trope, It's Been Done, Fleeting Demographic Rule, Recognition Failure, Pop-Culture Isolation, Lampshaded the Obscure Reference, Before My Time, and Technologically Blind Elders.

Contrast: It Was His Sled and especially Pop-Cultural Osmosis.


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Mistaken Reference

    Anime & Manga 
  • In A Certain Magical Index, Index is shown watching a Magical Girl anime, and applying her rather warped worldview to it. For one thing, she doesn't seem to understand that it's fiction. She assumes the protagonist goes through a Transformation Sequence to hide from witch hunters, but gets hung up on the blatantly wrong symbology and magic.

    Fan Works 

    Films — Animation 
  • SCOOB!: Velma dresses up as the judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween, but Shaggy mistakes her costume for a Harry Potter school uniform.
    Velma: I'm Ruth Bader Ginsburg, obviously.
    Shaggy: Which house is she in? Hufflepuff?
    Velma: She's a Supreme Court Justice.
    Shaggy: (disappointed) Oh. Slytherin.
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: As the general informs the troops that the black soldiers will be participating in Operation Human Shield:
    Chef: Have you ever heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?
    General: I don't listen to hip-hop.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • From the Professional Wrestling movie ...All the Marbles: Promoter Eddie Cisco tells Harry Sears, manager of The California Dolls, that if he wanted class, he'd get the Brontë sisters. Harry says, "My girls will tear their legs off."
  • From Armageddon (1998):
    A.J.: Have you ever heard of Evel Knievel?
    Lev: No, I never saw Star Wars.
  • In Baby Driver, one of the crooks is tasked with getting masks of the slasher Michael Myers from the movie Halloween. Instead, he gets Austin Powers masks.
    Eddie No-Nose: Doc said Michael Myers!
    JD: This is Mike Myers!
    Bats: It should be the Halloween mask!
    JD: This is a Halloween mask!
    Bats: No, the killer dude from Halloween!
    JD: Oh, you mean Jason...
    Bats: No!
  • In Don't Look Up, astronomy graduate student Kate travels to the White House with Randall, her college professor, to present their findings after she discovers a previously unknown comet heading on a deadly trajectory towards earth: When they mention that it was discovered via the Subaru Telescope, Chief of Staff Jason thinks of the automobile manufacturer, and expresses surprise that they make telescopes too note .
  • In Get a Job, Roger tries dyeing his hair and beard black in an attempt to look younger. As he and his son Will argue, Will gives the parting shot "You look like Billy Mays!". Roger thinks he means Willie Mays, the baseball player.
  • Live Free or Die Hard: When John McClane finally gets to "Warlock"'s place, his reluctant ally tries to pass him off as another of the culture, which fails fast. Notable is when McClane fails to recognize a cutout of Boba Fett and tries to cover it by saying he's only familiar with Star Wars. McClane's smirk seems to suggest he's just screwing with "The Warlock" with that one.
  • Munster, Go Home!: Herman mistakes the portrait of Elizabeth II on some counterfeit British pounds for Mary Poppins.
  • In Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, at one point, Gil jokes, "To boldly go where no one has gone before." Claudia says quoting Star Wars is dorky. He corrects her and says that came from Star Trek.
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home: Happy Hogan turns on "Back in Black", and Peter responds that he loves Led Zeppelin.
  • In Waxwork, one of the young people asks if the Phantom of the Opera figure's mask is the original from the movie, and the owner is surprised that someone made a movie about the Phantom. It's implied that the owner is not merely pop-culture clueless, but that he knows the Phantom actually existed in the movie's verse and is amazed Hollywood would resort to filming his tale.

  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, Lazarus mentions how, since the people on the spaceship will be going back to Earth while 75 years have passed there while only 25 have passed on the ship, there was a great place in Baja California that made great Mexican food. He asks a young girl who was born on the ship if she knows where Baja California is, "Don't you think I studied geography? It's in Los Angeles." Lazarus reflects that by the time they get back she may be right.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 4400: LaDonna creates an illusion of medical equipment she says she saw on Grey's Anatomy. Doc assumes she's referring to an updated version of the medical book.
  • In the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode "Halloween II", the rest of the precinct makes the wrong guesses on Boyle's costume selection, such as calling his He-Man costume "gay Robin Hood".
  • Everything Now: Will advises Mia to act like Cady from Mean Girls, and she's got no idea who that is, having never watched it, to his exasperation. Carli also mentions several older classic plays to her like A Streetcar Named Desire and Mia doesn't recognize any of them.
  • The Flash (2014): In "Nora", Barry and Iris meet their Kid from the Future, Nora. Barry points out if they screw up, Nora might "Marty McFly herself out of existence." Iris goes, "Right, Terminator 2." Barry is mystified and says that was from Back to the Future.
  • On The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, when Will and Carlton are trying to pawn Aunt Viv's tennis bracelet, Carlton tries to get more money by telling the pawn shop owner, Agnes, it belonged to Catherine the Great. She thinks he's referring to somebody completely different:
    Agnes: 200 dollars.
    Carlton: Okay for an ordinary bracelet, but not okay for one that formerly belonged to Catherine the Great.
    Agnes: The one-armed chick that works the corner of Hollywood and Vine? She a class act. Okay, $300.
  • Gilmore Girls: When Lane's (white) boyfriend Dave asks her traditional Korean mother for permission to date her (so they can do it openly), she responds with "Let never day nor night unhallowed pass, but still remember what the Lord hath done." Lane and Dave have no idea what it means, so Dave resolves to find out. He figures it must be from the Bible, so he reads the whole thing in one night and can't find it. When he confronts Mrs. Kim the next day begging for an explanation, she tells him it's from Shakespeare, but she's sufficiently impressed by his dedication in reading the Bible, so she explicitly grants permission.
  • Played with in an episode of Holby City, where an American patient says she understands the medical details because she's seen ER. Arthur Digby, who doesn't own a television, gets excited thinking she means she's been in an actual ER.
  • The IT Crowd: To Moss, "Fredo" from The Godfather is just a mispronunciation of "Frodo" from The Lord of the Rings
    Roy: Fredo, in the film, he was essentially a pimp.
    Moss: No. He took the ring to Mordor!
  • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
  • Tony on NCIS is a major movie buff and is constantly quoting movies. In one episode he loses his voice from overexertion. Ducky throws his quoting habit back in his face with, "Your ego's writing checks your body can't cash."
    Ziva: Oh, I know that one! Um, Gone with the Wind!
    [Tony cringes and groans]
  • Parks and Recreation: After it is discovered that the Gryzzl corporation was able to distract Ben from noticing that they added a revision to their contract allowing them to data mine Pawnee by doing it on December 18, 2015, the premiere date of Star Wars Episode VII:
    Ron: Is Star Wars the one with the little wizard boy?
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "Parallel Universe", Holly remarks that by jumping into a parallel universe they've "entered the fifth dimension". Lister seems to think the Fifth Dimension is a band: "Didn't they get to number six with 'Baby, I Want Your Love Thing'?"
  • A Running Gag in Scrubs is that J.D. refuses to admit he knows nothing about sports, so when other characters make sports references he tries to join in and gets them completely wrong.
  • Soap: Jodie counters his Aunt Jessica's claim that there were no homosexuals when she was growing up by noting that many people throughout history were gay, including Plato. Jessica is stunned to learn that Mickey Mouse's dog was gay.
  • Spaced:
    • Tim is giving the group Star Wars codenames. Twist is stuck with "Jabba", which probably would have offended her if she'd ever seen Star Wars:
      Twist: Was Jabba the princess?
      Everyone: Yes.
  • This exchange from The West Wing:
    Mandy: That bill was our coming out party. We were gonna have the stage for a month! It was our Nessun Dorma!
    Staffer #1: What the hell's Nessun Dorma?
    Staffer #2: It's an Italian opera by Wagner.
    Mandy: It's Puccini, Wagner's German, and you're a moron.

  • Fountains of Wayne's "I'll Do the Driving" includes an example, although the ditzy subject of the song makes the mangled reference without any prompting:
    We're out, the jukebox plays "Jumping Jack Flash"
    She says "I love Johnny Cash, the man in red"
    I turn my head and pretend not to hear what she said

  • An exchange in Angel Moxie:
    Mr. Kyokasho: Well, you know Doogie Howser?
    Tristan: What's that? A kind of meatloaf?

    Web Videos 

    Western Animation 
  • Bojack Horseman: Wanda misses a lot of references, having been in a coma between the '80s and the new '10s. In one instance Bojack refers to Snoop Dogg, and she's puzzled for a moment until she decides he means Snoopy from Peanuts.
  • Rocky and Bullwinkle: The show's spoof of The Three Musketeers ("The Three Mooseketeers") had this exchange:
    Athos: You want my advice, pay the taxes.
    Filet Mignon: But he is a tyrant!
    Athos: Pay the taxes.
    Filet Mignon: He thinks Clair de Lune is a girl.
    Athos: That is different. We will fight!
  • In an episode of Rugrats "Family Feud", Stu gets frustrated during a game of charades when Howard fails to guess Dances with Wolves. Howard responds that he doesn't watch musicals.
    Stu: It's not a musical, you imbecile!
  • The Simpsons:
    • In "Marge vs the Monorail", Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame appears as the guest of honor at the monorail's ribbon-cutting ceremony, where Mayor Quimby says "May the Force be with you" to him.
      Nimoy: Do you even know who I am?
      Quimby: I think so. Weren't you one of The Little Rascals?
    • In "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guest Star", when Bart recites a Latin prayer at the dinner table.
      Homer: Bart, what the hell are you saying?
      Lisa: That's Latin, Dad, the language of Plutarch.
      Homer: Mickey Mouse's dog?
      Lisa: No, Plu-tarch. He chronicled the lives of the Roman emperors.
      Homer: Oh, I didn't need that new fact! Now I forgot who won Bud Bowl VIII!
  • In the episode "What Color Is Your Cleansuit" of The Venture Brothers, The Monarch decides to get kinky in the bedroom and tells Dr. Girlfriend he'll cosplay as Khal Drogo, expecting her to cosplay as Daenerys. Dr. Girlfriend, however, does not watch Game of Thrones. She appears in stars-and-stripes boxing trunks because she thought he said "Drago". As in Ivan Drago.
    The Monarch: What the hell is sexy about that?!

Reference Mistaken for Original

    Comic Books 
  • In the Cobra Kai spin-off comic series, Johnny makes a reference to Rocky Balboa, whom his teenage students only know as "the old guy from Creed".

    Fan Works 
  • Happens in-universe in Ultra Fast Pony.
    • In "The David Bowie Drinking Game" (which, true to its name, is loaded with David Bowie shout outs), Spike says that Rarity was kidnapped by "scary monsters and super creeps!" Twilight corrects him: "It's scary monsters and nice sprites!" Everyone else is aghast at Twilight's ignorance, and at the episode's end Twilight admits that she has no idea who Bowie is.
    • In "The Longest Episode", Pinkie shares her The Lord of the Rings Self-Insert Fic, and her audience tells her that she's ruining a classic book. Pinkie is shocked to realize that "There's a book of Lord of the Rings?"


    Live-Action TV 
  • In The Handmaid's Tale's episode 5.05 "Fairytale" June, her husband Luke and the Guardian with whom they exchanged info are at an abandoned bowling alley, waiting until it is dark. While they wait, Luke goes to the alley's organ and plays Al Green's "Let's Stay Together", serenading June. The young Guardian, who barely remembers life before Gilead, likes the song and asks Luke if he wrote it. Luke is all, "Yup".
  • How I Met Your Mother: This frequently happens between Robin (who is from Canada) and the rest of the gang. Robin calls Springsteen! "like the American Bryan Adams". Springsteen had his break ten years earlier and is much more famous around the world, and particularly in the US.
  • It's Awfully Bad for Your Eyes, Darling...: Despite quoting him, Pudding is unfamiliar with Ernest Dowson in "A New Lease":
    Pudding: Ah, the days of wine and roses. They are not long.
    Samantha: Who said that?
    Pudding: I did?


    Print Media 
  • In its episode guide to Lois & Clark, SFX magazine explains that Perry's anonymous source Sore Throat (who actually refers to the line "Follow the money" at one point), is a parody of Deep Throat... from The X-Files.

    Video Games 
  • When Baldur's Gate III was released in 2023 by Larian many newer players, who never played the originals by Bioware nor knew who Minsc and Boo were, didn't get the references to the miniature giant space hamsters and mistook them for some random silly notes made just for fun. But in some egregious cases they mistook them for a tribute to the hamster you can get in Mass Effect 2 (which was made again by Bioware, and was already a tribute to Minsc and Boo). One of many examples is here.
  • Counter-Strike servers often added the Unreal Tournament "Headshot!" "Multi kill!" "Killing spree!" etc. sound effects. This became such a wide-spread practice, however, that many modders, unaware of the now-less-popular game, refer to them as "CS" sounds when they add them to other games. This expanded to the point that Valve, the company that made Counter-Strike, used the Unreal Tournament announcements in the beta of their newer game, Dota 2.
  • In Homescapes William mentions that he and Austin are building a flying machine based on Leonardo's drawings and Scotty asks which Ninja Turtle that is. When Chloe replies that the Leonardo in question was an inventor and artist, Scotty states that it's cool that an inventor was named after the Ninja Turtle.


    Western Animation 
  • BoJack Horseman's fourth season has Hollyhock mention "Chandler's List", an SNL parody of Schindler's List, which was the only reason she got something that BoJack had referenced.

Referencing Reference Rather Than Original

    Comic Books 

    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 

    Film- Live-Action 
  • Played with in Aquaman. Arthur and Mera hide in a whale's mouth to evade Atlantis's army, with Arthur stating he got the idea from Pinocchio. Later, a little girl repays Mera's kindness by giving her a copy of a Pinocchio storybook. Mera is aghast that Arthur risked their lives on an idea he got from a book, to which he replies "It was a book?"

    Live-Action TV 
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine has the normally Pop-Cultured Badass Jake suffer from this once:
    Jake Peralta: Hello Santiago. Emphasis on "Iago", backstabber!
    Amy Santiago: I'm surprised you've read Othello.
    Jake Peralta: What's Othello? I was calling you the parrot from Aladdin.
  • The Coroner: From "Life":
    Davey: Greed makes strange bedfellows.
    Jane: Shakespeare.
    Davey: Game of Thrones.
  • Jeremy Clarkson once dodged a forfeit on QI through this trope: He answered the question "What has twenty legs, five heads, and can't reach its own nuts?" with a Boy Band that was too old for the QI elves to have listed it (namely, Westlife). Upon being informed that the trope was in play, co-panelist Jimmy Carr then forfeited on purpose with a more recent addition. (Which falls flat anyway — a five-member boy-band would have 10 legs, not 20...)


Other Examples:

    Anime & Manga 
  • The Dangers in My Heart: Kana Ichikawa serves her brother Kyōtarō and Yamada takoyaki at a restaurant and channels Baki, giving Yamada a blessing to become a "woman who can't be consumed" just as Yujiro did with Baki's girlfriend Kozue. Yamada, who only reads one manga, pauses and just goes "Okay!" (Although Kyōtarō does get it and tells Kana to shoo.)

  • Invoked in the 1632-series: Two time-travelling spies identify each others by the code names "Romulus" and "Vulcan". The idea is that, since American pop culture hasn't penetrated the public consciousness of the 17th century, anyone in a position to recognize the names will assume that Romulus's counterpart is Remus.
  • During a flashback in The Da Vinci Code, Robert Langdon is explaining to his editor about the real nature of the Holy Grail. The editor asks why he's never heard of it and Langdon answers that the cover-up "is backed up by the world's biggest best-seller". The editor immediately expresses surprise that Harry Potter talks about the Holy Grail.
  • The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds: When one of Stephen's aspects "dies", Stephen loses access to all knowledge associated with that aspect. Losing Tobias, his "general knowledge" aspect, makes him a ramped-up version of this. Among many other things, he can no longer remember what the Eiffel Tower is.

    Films — Live Action 

  • The Inexplicable Adventures of Bob!: Galatea is very proud of her vast knowledge, but she has zero interest in pop culture and can be instantly stumped by even the simplest reference to it. "I don't know what that means" is nearly a catchphrase for her.

    Web Originals 

Alternative Title(s): What Was Whose Sled


The Carshank Redemption

Vin claims he hasn't seen The Carshank Redemption… except he probably has.

How well does it match the trope?

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Main / PopCulturalOsmosisFailure

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