‘Any word that embiggens the vocabulary is cromulent with me’
HOW DO YOU CREATE A NEW WORD? Why do some fresh-minted words gain instant and
eternal currency, while others prove duds? We adapt words from other
languages, from slang, from developments in science, literature and art. But
mostly, these days, we adopt new words from a bright yellow and deeply
dysfunctional television cartoon family by the name of Simpson.
The role of the The Simpsons in the evolution of the English language is one
of the oddest phenomena in modern culture. In the course of more than 400
episodes over 18 years, the most popular animated show in television history
has produced an entire raft of words and phrases that have been absorbed
into popular parlance. Some were borrowed, but many have simply emerged from
the peculiar mind of the show’s creator, Matt Groening.
According to Mark Liberman, of the University of Pennsylvania Linguistic Data
Consortium: “ The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare
and the Bible as our culture’s greatest source of idioms, catchphrases and
sundry other textual allusions.” At first glance, that statement seems quite
ludicrous. Yet, thanks to The Simpsons’ vast fan base, the show’s clever
interplay of language and humour and the power of the internet to
disseminate new words, its neologisms have been picked up and spread in a
way Shakespeare himself might have approved.
“D’oh!”, Homer’s grunt of irritation at each successive failure, has now
entered the Oxford English Dictionary,where it is defined as “expressing
frustration at the realisation that things have turned out badly or not as
planned or that one has just said or done something foolish”.
“D’oh” can be traced to the splutter of irritation made by the Scottish actor
Jimmy Finlayson in early Laurel and Hardy films. Finlayson’s “Dow” sound was
in effect code for “Damn”, then considered an unacceptable swearword.
Homer’s voice-actor, Dan Castellaneta, took the noise made by Finlayson and
subtly altered it to create Homer’s “D’oh”, as in: “D’oh. Whoever thought a
nuclear power plant would be so complicated?”
“Meh” indicates a profound lack of enthusiasm, and is often used by shrugging
teenagers to mean “whatever”, “so-so”, “I don’t care” and “boring”. Some
have traced its origins to Yiddish (it may be related to the bleat of a
goat), but its most notable outing was in a 2001 episode of The Simpsons:
Homer: “Kids, how would you like to go to . . . Blockoland?”
Bart and Lisa: “Meh.” Homer: “But the commercial gave me the impression that .
Bart: “We said ‘meh’.” Lisa: “MEH: Meh.” “Meh” is listed as a word in the Merriam-Webster
Open Dictionary, the user-created Wiktionary and the Urban Dictionary.
Bart is a particularly fertile source of new words: “craptacular” (a
portmanteau of “spectacular” and “crap”); “yoink” (snatching something,
moving something from its proper place, or inflicting a wedgie); and “eat my
shorts” (a catch-all dismissal of authority). Bart also invented “kwyjibo”
during a game of Scrabble (thus using up all his letters, and scoring 116
points). When challenged by Homer, he defined it as “a big dumb balding
Northern American ape with no chin”.
Whereas the word “kwyjibo” is of no use whatever, the term “lupper”, coined by
Homer to refer to a large, cholesterol-laden meal midway between lunch and
supper, is so valuable I am amazed no one invented it before.
Perhaps the most famous Simpsonism is “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”, first
used in 1995 to describe the French nation by the Scottish school janitor
Willie. The phrase was used in print in 2003 by the conservative American
columnist Jonah Goldberg to attack French opposition to the invasion of
Iraq, and has gone on to become a journalistic cliché. In the French version
of the show it is translated as “singes mangeurs de fromage”. The word
“surrender”, intriguingly, is not translated.
My own favourites are “embiggen” (enlarge or empower) and “cromulent” (valid
or acceptable). Springfield’s town motto is: “A noble spirit embiggens the
smallest man.” When a new teacher says she has never heard the term, she is
told “it’s a perfectly cromulent word”.
“Embiggen” was used in a densely-written academic paper on string theory
entitled “Gauge/gravity duality and meta-stable dynamical supersymmetry
breaking”. This argued, no doubt correctly, that “there is a competing
effect which can overcome the desire of the antiD3s to embiggen, namely
their attraction towards the wrapped D5s”.
Language purists may regard the spread of Simpsonisms as another example of
the craptacular erosion of the mother tongue. But the mark of a living
language is the ability to absorb strange new accretions. Any tongue that
can absorb the language of Homer is in robust good health, and any word that
embiggens the vocabulary is perfectly cromulent with me.