How “The Simpsons” Contributed to the English Language

Tuesday, March 142 min read

In a 1996 episode of The Simpsons entitled “Lisa the Iconoclast,” teachers Edna Krabappel and Elizabeth Hoover show their students a film about Springfield’s founder, Jebediah Springfield. When asked how he achieved such greatness, Jebediah says, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” Krabappel then remarks, “‘Embiggens’? Hmm, I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield,” to which Hoover replies, “I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

Embiggens? Cromulent? Those aren’t words. Or are they?

All for Nonce

While the Merriam-Webster entry for “embiggen” gives no mention of the animated series, it does mark the first usage as 1996, which is when The Simpsons showrunners asked the show’s writers to come up with two “nonce words,” or “word[s] or expression[s] coined for or used on one occasion.”

The verb “embiggen,” which means “to make bigger or more expansive,” was cleverly paired with “cromulent,” an adjective that means “acceptable” or “fine.” The sly linguistic joke (that many watchers didn’t even realize was a joke) launched the journey for these made-up words to become a part of the popular lexicon. “Embiggen” was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018. “Cromulent” hasn’t made the cut yet, though Merriam-Webster calls it a “word [they’re] watching.”

Published appearances of “cromulent” include a 2013 Supreme Court amicus brief over a matter of copyright infringement, and a New York Times article in 2020, when Deb Amlen wrote: “I suspect that one of the scariest moments for new [crossword] solvers is when they discover that it is perfectly cromulent for constructors to clue answers in a way that means one thing, but twists the answers into real words that mean something totally different.”

You, Too, Can Embiggen the English Language

It’s not as though the New York Times crossword desk has a monopoly on playing with language in cromulent ways. People make up new words all the time — in etymology, this is called a “neologism,” or a word or phrase coined to adapt to meet changes occurring in the life and culture of its speakers. The nonce (one-use) words of “embiggen” and “cromulent” turned into neologisms as more people and publications continued to use them.

Such linguistic behavior has been going on for centuries; this isn’t even the first time The Simpsons has made it into the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary added Homer’s catchphrase “D’oh!” to the dictionary in 2001. Alice in Wonderland writer Lewis Carroll was a notorious neologist, too — we can thank him for embiggening the English language with “chortle,” “bandersnatch,” and “snark.”

So take this as a challenge to create your own neologism — “There Should Be a Word for That! (So Make One Up.)” offers a helpful primer, including the concepts of compounding (“duckface,” “manspreading”) and blending (“brunch,” “listicle”). Until then, we’ll wait for cromulent’s usage to become cromulent enough for Merriam-Webster and Oxford English Dictionary.

Featured image credit: PeopleImages/ iStock

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