Tracing the Simpsons

November 29, 2007

Just a quick post while I dash from lecture to lecture. I’m really quite surprised that we haven’t talked about “The Simpsons” that much, both because it is arguably the most important television show of its time, and because Mandrake and I marathon the DVDs upon their release. But I was recently reminded of its import while watching the classic episode, “Lisa the Iconoclast.” There are a number of things really interesting about the episode: Bart is almost completely absent from the story, and Kearney’s age is revealed. But for our purposes, the most interesting aspect is its hilarious neologism, embiggen:

Jebediah: [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to
Springfield
Ms.Hoover: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

The word is then repeated about two or three more times throughout the episode. It then disappears into the Simpsons ether only to become a real word, showing up in an academic article about String Theory (although one could question whether or not string theory is real science, and if fake science has real words, but since Yesterday’s post involved proving the existence of “real” ghosts, I’m going to leave that argument to someone else). wiktionary actually has a very good article on embiggen, pointing out its historical antecedents and post-Simpsons uses. They also include this quote from “Nature” for which I am infinitely thankful:

In a case of theoretical physics imitating art, ‘embiggen’, first coined by The Simpsons character Jebediah Springfield, has now been used in a paper on string theory by Stanford University’s Shamit Kachru. In case you need a definition, it means ‘to grow or expand’.

I’m unclear as to how an animated character can coin a word, but the quote nonetheless shows the import of embiggen within the field of science.

The other neologism of the episode, “cromulent” has been less influential. This is probably because the word has two completely different uses (as pointed out by wiktionary), “fine/ acceptable/ normal”, and “excellent/realistic/authentic,” though I’m not that sure how they decided which was the nonce word). All of his shows the lasting impact of the Simpsons on society, and the incredibly permeable boundary (or, more correctly, the total lack thereof) between “low culture” and “high culture.”

Next time: “Marge vs. the Monorail” and its reverberations in mass transit planning.

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