American English month continues with a guest post by Denise Du Vernay. Denise has been teaching composition, literature, humanities, speech, and courses on The Simpsons for over ten years. She is co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield (www.simpsonology.com). Denise lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
On the eve of its twenty-second season, The Simpsons deserves praise, not just for what it has done for television (you’re welcome, South Park and Family Guy fans), but it has also had an enormous effect on American popular culture and the English spoken in the United States. Several neologisms have become so ubiquitous that even non-fans of the show use words or phrases made popular by The Simpsons. They may not even realize that they have The Simpsons to thank for some of the things they say!
In linguistics, neologism refers to a newly coined term or meaning, and The Simpsons is to thank for many neologisms. Woohoo and d’oh, for example, were coined by The Simpsons through Homer. D’oh, an expression used when the speaker realizes he/she has done or said something stupid, is listed as a variant of doh in the OED, and two of the citations are attributed to The Simpsons. In the past years it has cropped up everywhere: it is often used on cable news networks in headlines and in error messages on popular websites. The expression woohoo is often used as a hashtag on Twitter to mark posts with a happy message. “Woohoo! As good as it gets!” appears when a user gives 5 stars to a business on Yelp.com. In several episodes, the word meh is used (to mean so-so), and its popularity has since taken off. In fact, the word is now included in some dictionaries with The Simpsons cited as the source.
It’s not just all about Homer. The writers of the episode “Lisa the Iconoclast” created the words embiggen (meaning “to make or become bigger”) and cromulent (meaning “fine, acceptable, legitimate”). In the following scene, two teachers are chatting at the back of a classroom during a film about the town’s founder, Jebediah Springfield:
Jebediah Springfield: [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna Krabappel: “Embiggens”? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
Miss Hoover: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.
Although cromulent and embiggen are not yet included in any standard dictionary, they are everywhere, frequently used by fans and non-fans alike. Many pop culture and encyclopedia sites, including aintitcool.com and Flickr, invite users to click small images in order to “embiggen” them and Tech Digest used it in a headline in May, 2009: “Embiggen Your iPod to 240GB and 42,000 Tracks.” A bookstore and art gallery called Embiggen Books is located in Queensland, Australia. The website for the Cromulent Shakespeare Company (Twin Cities, Minnesota) announces the company’s goal to “embiggen the Bard.”
Neologisms are often coined through blending (a blend is a new word created by combining two existing words together) and many new blends have been created by The Simpsons, including craptacular (a blend of crap and spectacular, from “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace”), which was used in The Wall Street Journal by journalist David Gaffen in September of 2008 (although he didn’t seem aware that he was using a blend already introduced by The Simpsons). Some other Simpsons-created blends that I hope have a future in American English are Euroific (a blend of European and terrific, from “Bart Carny”) and traumedies (a blend of trauma and comedy, from “Faith Off”). Chief Wiggum expects to be shot just days before retirement, saying that in the business it’s called retirony (which combines retire(ment) and irony and originates from “Homer vs. Dignity”).
Linguists have a lot to work with when looking at the ways The Simpsons uses language to create humor. Not just in its neologisms, as I’ve described, but also in its various examples of wordplay, including malapropisms (Homer is a known “xylophobe”*) and double meanings (in a bowling episode, newscaster Kent Brockman refers to Homer as a “local pinhead”**). The show provides layers in its humor and dialogue that makes a second (or third, or fourth) viewing of an individual episode not only fun, but rewarding, as we keep finding jokes we missed before. I’m grateful for the previous twenty-one seasons of The Simpsons, and look forward for the linguistic fun to come. What will the next Simpsons-inspired word added to the OED be? We’ll just have to wait and see.
* The word xyolophobe comes from Homer saying he supports the town’s “xylophobia” when he means xenophobia. His misuse of the word (and invention of a new one) causes both Ogdenvillians (neighboring townspeople) and xylophones to be banned from Springfield. (The episode is called “Coming to Homerica.”)
** Homer is called a pinhead, slang for a stupid person, by the newscaster. Because the episode is about bowling, this is a pun on bowling pins.
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Two other popular Simpsons neologisms I can think of off the top of my head:
“Yoink!”: first used in “Duffless” and repeated in a number of episodes afterwards, this is usually said when taking or stealing something. George Meyer, who coined the phrase, says he took it from a Flintstones sound effect.
“Cheese-eating surrender monkeys”: Originally said by Groundskeeper Willie (as a substitute French teacher) in “‘Round Springfield,” this phrase has become a popular insult towards the French, especially after the country refused to support the United States in the Iraq War. “Surrender Monkeys” was even used as a New York Post headline regarding a report on the war by an American group, thus making the phrase not just represent the French.