You never know what your lasting contribution to the world will be, if that thing you create will be your legacy. The Simpsons has gifted pop culture with many indelible moments: pink donuts, the monorail episode, the show’s years long “war'” with President HW Bush, and even the recent prominence of the Steamed Hams meme. Heck, the entire series is a lesson to the importance of excellent storytelling and design that’s influenced television and pop culture for almost 30 years!
Very few shows have been credited with adding a new* word to the English language and dictionary, though. 1996’s season seven episode LISA THE ICONOCLAST, did just that. Before the opening credits even end, while the children are watching a filmstrip on the life of Jebediah Springfield, two neologisms are coined. One was cromulent, the product of David X. Cohen’s imagination.
The other, Embiggens, created by show writer Dan Greaney was just added the Merriam-Webster online English dictionary. Validation on the level of receiving an Oscar (or at least a Grammy) award. Flim Springfield was pleased to speak with a representative from the esteemed reference resource (this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity).
Flim Springfield: Hello and thank you for taking time to speak to us today, please introduce yourself, and tell us what your job is?
Merriam-Webster: My name is Emily Brewster, I am an Associate Editor at Merriam-Webster, my job is General Definer which means that I define non-scientific vocabulary.
FS: What draws the line between scientific and non-scientific vocabulary?
M-W: Sometimes it gets a little hazy and then we have to consult with each other and ask is this your territory or mine, but anything related to Math and Science, Astronomy, Biology, all of those things are considered science.
FS: If I could ask you to describe how the word embiggens came to the attention of Merriam-Webster?
M-W: We are always looking for evidence that words are becoming fully established members of the language, [and embiggen] is a word we’ve been watching for some time. We are constantly looking for new words, we read a lot, and enter words into our personal corpus and database. We also make note of them in a big spreadsheet, keeping an eye on some particular words.
There are plenty of words that get coined and used in a very narrow field or by a very small group of people and those are not the words that we consider as eligible for the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary, because they’re really just too specialized. We’re looking for words that are full fledged words of the English language. We want to see evidence that they have widespread use, that they have frequent use, and they have a clearly established meaning and meaningful use. Embiggen has more than met those criteria.
FS: How many words did you add to the Merriam-Webster dictionary lexicon this year?
M-W: This release–we call them releases–was about 850 words.
FS: What were some notable ones that premiered alongside of it?
M-W: Blockchain and cryptocurrency. Initial Coin Offering (as well as the abbreviated form ICO). Those are words that are all the sudden very much in the public discourse. Mansplain and Manspreading got in new this year. They range from the technical to the playful, but in each case the word met our criteria for entry.
FS: Can you give me some examples of where embiggen also appeared that make it notable? Any particular occurrences?
M-W: It’s an interesting word to me in that I was seeing used in all really these matter-of-fact situations. Most often encounter in in “click to embiggen” in tiny font for images on a web page, and I thought, as a lexicographer, it very interesting to see what I new to be a playfully coined word to appear in this very matter-of-fact context. And clearly the meaning of the word was very apparent, that always speaks well for a new coinage, when it’s very clear to your readers exactly what it means—nobody needs an explanation—with it’s appearing in this very dry unremarkable context. It also has been used in scientific journals without any kind of giggle or nod or anything. There was one on string theory that used it. It’s really handily met our criteria.
FS: Have you seen the episode of the show where it first occurred?
M-W: Yes I have. This is a terrible thing to confess to you, but I haven’t had a TV in a really long time and I am not a regular watcher of The Simpsons. If I had TV, I would watch The Simpsons.
FS: [friendly laughter] No need to apologize. Let me ask though, this isn’t the first time a word from a sitcom or cartoon or something like, that has entered the lexicon. Can you think of another word that is sits well alongside from those origins?
M-W: Television is an absolutely legitimate source or us when looking for new words and we often keep track of and observer what words are being looked up during particular times of the day. Often words will spike in usage that because a word has been used on a television show. So we know that people that pay attention to the vocabulary that they encounter on TV. … Do you know about the 1884 letter to the British publication “Notes and Queries” that also used the word embiggens?
FS: I’d completely forgot about that!
M-W: [Laughing] It’s pretty funny! I think it’s fascinating. It was also a playful coinage, and it was coined really to be ridiculous. This letter is basically talking about how awful it is to ‘verb’ words. It’s terrible, they called embiggen an ugly word! I’ve got the text, and it’s on google books. I’ll send you a link.
FS: What words are you keeping an eye on now?
M-W: Oh, well cromulent** is definitely one word we’re still interested in. It doesn’t do the technical heavy lifting that embiggens does but it is clearly establishing itself in the language.
FS: One other question before we go. Because this word was created by persons, and their work is property of a corporation, is there anything owing to copyright of the word? Would FOX or whoever be owed royalties for its use or anything like that?
M-W: Well no, once you coin a word, unless you’ve had it registered as a trademark associated with some kind of product, you’re really just making a generous contribution to your fellow speakers [laughter]. There’s no ownership of these words, and they of course can take on lives of their own. People will coin a word with one meaning and it will get completely rearranged and turned upside down and used by the general populous and they can’t do anything about it.
It makes me thing of GIF. The man who apparently coined the word thinks it should be pronounced like the peanut butter, but the fact is that the [hard G] pronunciation is also fully accepted, and however much he may protest, you don’t own your words once you coin them.
F-S: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today, and for adding some validation to Simpsons fans like us who treat the show like a sacred text!
Following our interview, Emily was nice enough to providing an additional pair of words whose usage originated in television…
We reached out to some of The Simpsons staff who worked on Lisa the Iconoclast, many had already posted their reactions on social media. They credited the creative team environment, and directed praise to Dan Greaney who came up with the word that day.