The Grammarphobia Blog

Like Oswald in “Ghosts”

Q: My question is about the phrase “like Oswald in Ghosts.” I know it’s from Annie Hall and know it refers to the Ibsen play, but I would love to know how it came into our phrasebook and what the heck it means!

A: In a brief flashback scene in the film Annie Hall (1977), Alvy (played by Woody Allen) and his neurotic second wife, Robin (Janet Margolin), are in bed.

Robin, who is all intellect and little libido, is seldom in the mood. Tonight, it’s a headache. Here’s the exchange:

Robin: “My head is throbbing.”

Alvy: “Oh, you got a headache!”

Robin: “I have a headache.”

Alvy: “Bad?”

Robin: ‘Like Oswald in Ghosts.

The reference is to Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts, in which the lead character, Oswald, suffers from excruciating headaches brought on by the congenital venereal disease that’s slowly killing him.

Oswald’s last name, by the way is Alving.

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