Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Embiggening The Enbiggen

It’s hard to criticise The Simpsons. Call me a simple-minded man in a thong if you insist, but the show is to our age what Michelangelo’s David was to the cause of all men with marble genitalia during the Italian renaissance. Yet however much I'm a fan, I have to draw a line at the word ‘embiggen’ (sometimes spelt 'enbiggen'). It isn’t the case that the joke has gone on too long. It’s that people seem to have missed the joke in the first place.

Three times this week I've heard the word used in everyday conversation. The first time, I was prodding courgettes in Tesco's vegetable section when I heard a shelf stacker explain to her friend how she planned to 'embiggen' her breasts with implants. I then heard the word used on the news last night and then I saw it again, today, written in a comment on a blog. Not that there’s anything wrong with English adopting new words. It’s one of the great qualities of our language. Only, ‘embiggen’ is the linguistic equivalent of a wart. It’s a joke word. It was first used by a man who had the verbal dexterity of a tongue tied anteater. It's only through good luck that I've not been handling a sharp object when I've heard it used. I could easily have damaged myself.

The man who first coined the word 'embiggen' was that phony hero, Jebediah Springfield. He uses it in his memorable aphorism, ‘travel enbiggens the smallest of men’. Only, the line itself is memorable precisely because it’s so ungainly. It’s as fraudulent as the founder of Springfield himself. A man could rupture his spleen trying to make a line like that sound good and it is ugly precisely because ‘embiggen’ is a lexical monstrosity. Why use 'embiggen' when we can choose ‘enhances’ or ‘improves’?

But this, of course, was the joke. The Simpsons also coined another word to describe this kind of word. That word is ‘cromulent’, a far better word in that it sounds suitably unpleasant and is ‘used in an ironical sense to mean legitimate, and therefore, in reality, spurious and not at all legitimate’. You won’t find either word in the Compact OED and with any luck, they'll be forgotten by all Tesco shelf stackers, Newsnight reporters, and bloggers. After all, we don't want to make embiggen bigger than it already is...


Lord Straf-Bilderberg said...

What's the antonym?

Big Chip Dale said...

Good question. Clearly it's 'unbiggen' or 'ensmallen'.

Reading the Signs said...

Hello - I have tagged you. Hope you don't mind, but I have been enjoying your posts.

Mopsa said...

I am so not with the zeitgeist. All new to me. Chip, you are an education. And who will be the first to read and blog on young Master Potter? And does the fact I know this is happening redeem me in any way?

Ms Baroque said...

Chip, I hate to the the first to say it - no, I'm wrong, in fact I'm pathetically grateful to be the first of your commenters to say it! But don't you think you might be being a little... you know... pedantic?


Big Chip Dale said...

Reading: I'll be posting my next bunch of random facts when I can think of some.

Mopsa: I'll be posting on Harry Potter at some point. In fact, I'll probably even read it. I'm currently thick with a cold and a day spent in bed reading a dumb book might do me the world of good.

Ms. Baroque: Pedantic? Perhaps I am but there's no rule against my being contradictory. Besides, I think there's a subtle different about the way I go about it. My tongue is always clenched firmly between cheeks.

Anyway, you surely can't defend 'embiggen'! The word's just so damn horrible. It hurts my ears just typing it.

Anonymous said...

Well if I called you a smeg head would that enbiggen me to you,that means nothing to me or you ,but will somebody/something in a flying saucer out in space somewhere understand what it means ,or am I high on drugs and just spouted a load of garbage,now if we understand what the words mean and their intended use.

PS I can't believe I've just typed that rubbish out, but I did,let you work it out.

Big Chip Dale said...

Anonymous, only the good thing about 'smeg head' is that it sounds like what it means. It's a good curse, full of onomatopoeia. Though 'embiggen' is similar -- it sounds like a ugly word -- people don't use it recognising this.

God, I probably am being pedantic but I'm full of a cold and I have to get up tomorrow to spend the day reformatting my PC…

Ms Baroque said...

No, I agree with you about embiggen. It's a joke word, it's funny, and as such I've always liked it: it's a good joke! But that's all it is.

Of course you're not beng pedantic; that was a joke too.

Anyway I have mixed feelings about this whole Simpsons movie thing. Like what the world needs is yet another Simpsons craze.

That's so pants said...

Hi Chip

I don't have a problem with 'embiggen'. It's the same construction as 'embolden' so it doesn't break any rules.

His lordship asks about a possible antonym. Using 'bold' as the sample root, you could follow the 'Word for Windows' inspired convention of using 'unbold' - definition:- an instruction to secretary to take the bold off this bit of text.

You would get 'unbig' rather and 'unbiggen' out of this experiment. It might work quite well if you're using 'big' as a verb. You could 'unbig' up someone rather than 'dis' them. It doesn't seem quite as nasty, somehow.

On the whole, I prefer your suggestion of 'ensmallen'. It has an inherent sense of justice about it.


Prof Pants