Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Simpson embiggens the English language.

Language Log calls out the Economist for using the Simpsons neologism "embiggened":

If a future turn of events in Africa was seen as requiring the island’s military role to be embiggened and its facilities rendered much more secure, it might be convenient if the islanders had no legal right to remain where they were.
The Economist writer seems to have had no inkling that there was anything humorous about the word. As Euguene Volokh points out, the rest of the sentence isn't especially funny. In fact, it's quite dour. So is the rest of the article (a series of dispatches from an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean called Ascension).

Language Log points us to the Wikipedia entry on the Simpsons episode that originally used "embiggen" (I've omitted the numerous footnotes and links here):
The show runners asked the writers if they could come up with two words which sounded like real words . . . . The Springfield town motto is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Schoolteacher Edna Krabappel comments that she never heard the word embiggens until she moved to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, "I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word." Later in the episode, while talking about Homer’s audition for the role of town crier, Principal Skinner states, "He's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance."

Embiggen—in the context it is used in the episode—is a verb that was coined by Dan Greaney in 1996. [That is, a Simpsons writer coined it for the episode.] The verb previously occurred in an 1884 edition of the British journal Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. by C. A. Ward, in the sentence "but the people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all, use is nearly everything." The literal meaning of embiggen is to make something larger. . . . [E]mbiggen can be found in string theory. The first occurrence of the word was in the journal High Energy Physics in the article "Gauge/gravity duality and meta-stable dynamical supersymmetry breaking", which was published on January 23, 2007. For example, the article says: "For large P, the three-form fluxes are dilute, and the gradient of the Myers potential encouraging an anti-D3 to embiggen is very mild." Later this usage was noted in the journal Nature, which explained that in this context, it means to grow or expand.

Cromulent is an adjective that was coined by David S. Cohen. [Actually, he was forced to change his name and is now David X. Cohen.] Since it was coined it has appeared in the Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English. The meaning of cromulent is inferred only from its usage, which indicates that it is a positive attribute. Webster's Dictionary defines it as meaning fine or acceptable.
Language Log says Dan Greaney might join "the very select club of people who invented words that make it into major dictionaries."

In a blog post entitled "Beyond embiggens and cromulent," a linguist named Heidi Harley gave an amusingly analytical list of Simpsons jokes that play with language.

She followed this up every year for the next few years: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009.

Caution: Reading these posts can use up hours of your time. I just read the first 5 in the first list, and I'm delighted by all of them. I like this one so much I have Moe's remark in my list of "favorite quotes" on Facebook:
The Simpsons' house has been broken into on Christmas eve, and all their Christmas presents and decorations stolen. Homer is telling his woes to Moe. Moe says, "You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society!"


Jason (the commenter) said...

I imagine the Economist author flips through a thesaurus regularly, looking for words to make his articles sound intelligent. It's a lot easier than actually writing anything intelligent (as many of the intelligentsia know).