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English embiggened

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum celebrates the appearance of embiggen in a perfectly serious article in The Economist and wonders whether the word, which Dan Greaney coined for The Simpsons, “might really be taking off as a mainstream item of vocabulary.”

One can only hope.

D’you remember when The Simpsons was a Dangerous Influence? We knew people who would not watch it or allow their children to watch it. Bart Simpson’s pride in being an underachiever was thought to send the Wrong Message to Our Young People. Homer Simpson was thought to belittle American men by portraying them as obese, boorish clods.*

Even though my son thinks that the show peaked about a decade ago and has been coasting ever since, with occasional flashes of the old verve, my suspicion is that in years to come the collected episodes will tell more about the American people and American culture than a library shelf of earnest sociological studies. The writers have got us down.

And now, they are also infiltrating the dictionary. That’s perfectly cromulent.



Professor Pullum also weighed in the other day on the issue of whether Australians are better at distinguishing lie and lay than Americans, an assertion made in a comment on this blog. He is doubtful, and I invite you to look at the comments on his post for a glance at the intricacies of research into how people actually use the language.


*Seriously, have those people ever been to a football game? Seen how men dress for air travel?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:42 AM | | Comments (17)


One of my former co-workers used to tell designers to "embiggen" a photo or headline if it was too small. I was the only other one on the desk who got the reference.

I am pleased to announce that I have never watched the Simpsons and therefore have no idea what you are talking about. I never watched Seinfeld the Obnoxious, either, and am sure I am a better person for it. "Embiggen" sounds like something a politician or academic would make up. I suggest you ignore this.

Perhaps it has to do with living in a German-language background, but I didn't find 'embiggen' at all strange until I started thinking about it. Now, of course, the word has gone through my mind so often, that the word sounds utterly strange, and doesn't have a chance of my thinking it in any way normal again.

Having read not only your post, but LL's one beforehand, I still haven't found any serious constellation or sentence where 'embiggen' would be an enrichment, or even an equivalent alternative, to any of the other words suggested, such as enlarge, expand, or whatever. Perhaps some day this and other jokey words will have found wide acceptance, and that isn't a bad thing in itself, but at the moment I still find it too way out for my tastes.

Sounds like something Lewis Carroll might have made up. Keep in mind that many of his word creations are now in dictionaries.

The Simpsons is a very funny show, Patricia the Terse. You should check it out.

"I am pleased to announce that I have never watched the Simpsons"

Patricia, your claim is as shameful as the person who boasts: "I am pleased to announce that I have never seen any Shakespeare." Still, the loss is yours.

I can live with the shame. And the loss. I've also never seen Hawaii 5-O, Animal House or many other television series or films that others enjoy. They simply have no appeal for me. I am a fan of the Pythons, athough I'm certain there are many who are not. And, this may come as a shock, I've never seen that film, the name of which escapes me, with Harrison Ford zooming through space. I can live with a lot of shame.

P the T--that's too bad, but more for the rest of us. Oh wait--we can ALL watch! I'm with you on the Pythons, but also enjoyed StarWars (the first three, anyway) and Animal House.

Oh, heavens, will the pattern ever be broken? Someone declares themselves to be superior to the common throng, then immediately identifies themselves as among the most grating of them.

Here's a bit of a news flash, Ms. The Terse: while the Monty Python crew is certainly entertaining, their fans are widely known to be vile humorless dorks. You do yourself no service in attempting to use Python to distance yourself from the Star Wars/Simpsons rabble. It only shows that you have a distinct lack of discernment in your obviously massively nerdy taste in film.

It's Miss Terse, Bub.

I have seen how men dress for air travel. I have also seen how women dress for air travel. There is very little to distinguish the two. And are you referring to the wardrobe of the people on the field, or those in the stands?

Thing is, though, Miss Terse, that The Simpsons is actually good. (And the Beatles, by the way, were a popular beat combo, m'lud)

There's a difference between not liking something, and declaring yourself pleased that you have never seen it. And pretending ignorance - and proclaiming pride in the ignorance - of important pieces of the world around you is rather different from not liking one or more of those piece, or even despising them.

Picky, Picky, Picky. I like the Beatles. Also the Bangles. And, RIdger, please don't put yourself in the position of determining what are "important pieces of the world around" me. History will do that very nicely without you. I also am not a fan of "The Scream." It looks to me like a poster, which I believe it has become.

This thread reminds me of a British friend who proudly announced that she knew "nothing" of American history. Since I had a passing knowledge of English kings and queens I allowed myself to feel superior for a moment.

I noticed today at work this new title, published in April: The Simpsons in the classroom : embiggening the learning experience with the wisdom of Springfield by Karma Wiltonen and Denise Du Vernay.

Dahlink, sounds like maybe your British friend is still in denial.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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