The Simpsons, language, and evolution
The year was 1996, and the pop-culture role of The Simpsons was perhaps at its all-time peak. The show was in the middle of its seventh season, months after it had gotten America talking about its Dallas-parodying episodes "Who Shot Mr. Burns."
The show was still pulling in more than 10 million viewers every week, and it was in prime culture-influencing position. And, on February 18, 1996, it did just that—by inventing a couple of words.
It wasn't the first time that—d'oh—the show had created new words, but the words the show launched in that episode, "cromulent" and "embiggen," hold special prominence in Simpsons lore.
The phrases first came to light when Mrs. Krabappel was complaining about the town's motto: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." She claimed she had never heard the word "embiggens" before coming to Springfield.
"I don't know why; it's a perfectly cromulent word," Miss Hoover says in response.
What makes the words so effective is that they're designed to look like real words, obscure words that showed up in the forgettable parts of the dictionary that surround the memorable words, but instead,Simpsons writers created them both to sort of screw with the audience. Since then, both words have only grown in stature, with the latter actually showing up in the dictionary.
Many invented words came up after that—who could forget "steamed hams"?—but the show's influence on language embiggens each year, and I for one think that's pretty cromulent.
Five made-up literary phrases that became real words in the dictionary
- Irregardless: Despite being something of an ugly second cousin of the grammatically correct word "regardless," this common target for grammar Nazis actually has a long history in the English language, first showing up in 1795 in a terrible poem called "The Old Woman and her Tabby." Regardless of how it happened, it should stop.
- Chortled: If you just chuckle and snorted at the same time when reading that first entry, you can credit Charles Dodgson for giving what you just did a name. Don't know who that is? You might know him better by his pen name, Lewis Carroll—he invented the term in his 1871 book, Through the Looking Glass—specifically the nonsense poem that gave the world another amazing word, "Jabberwocky."
- Robot: The machines have long taken over popular culture, but we can credit the Czech for giving us the nomenclature. It all started with the 1920 play R.U.R. (which stands for "Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti," and translates to "Rossum’s Universal Robots"). Karel Čapek's early work of science fiction became so popular in its day—being translated into 30 different languages in just three years—that "robot" became a common term. This may in fact be the most famous invented word of the past 100 years.
- Eyeball: You can credit your boy Willie Shakespeare for this one. he invented numerous words over the years—including "uncomfortable," "manager," and "swagger"—but his most surprising gift to the English language may be the word he came up with to describe the lump of flesh that helps you see stuff. You can find it in Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest. Our spirit animal Mental Floss highlights a bunch of other similar verbal gifts invented by the playwright himself.
- Nerd: If you think about it, Revenge of the Nerds wasn't really about David Carradine's brother and that manager dude from the movie Ray. It was basically a 90-minute love letter to a word that had taken over the English language in relatively short order. You'd never guess who came up with it unless I told you, so let me tell you: The first use of that word was by Dr. Seuss, in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo. Here's how it showed up in the English language for the first time: "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo, A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!" How it got associated with pocket protectors, we'll never know.
The day electronics learned how to talk
We take Siri for granted these days, but the roots of her conversational skills date back to March 21, 1939. That was the day that Bell Labs researcher Homer Dudley received a patent for a device called the Voder.
Later that year, during the 1939 World's Fair in New York, Dudley and the company showed off the product to the world, which was a bizarre sight at the time. The Voder, the first vocoder, essentially worked like a typewriter for speech. A person using the device could touch the keys in a very specific way, and build consonants, vowels and full phrases. The way the voice modulated—its personality, effectively—could be controlled by pressing the keys in the right way. Here's a clip of the Voder in action.
So, why'd the phone company make it? Simple: They thought it'd be a great tool for making long-distance phone calls cheaper, because you could have an operator typing your phrasing instead of actually transmitting your voice.
Back then, it was not an easy task to create speech with machines. But, with wars breaking out in Europe and Japan, it quickly proved an immensely useful tool for the U.S. government, which used the vocoder to share coded messages between politicians and military leaders.
Not that it didn't have its problems.
"They didn't mind world leaders sounding like robots, just as long as they didn't sound like chipmunks," music journalist Dave Tompkins told NPR in 2010. "Eisenhower did not want to sound like a chipmunk."
After the war, the tool found one of its true lasting sources of usage—as musical instrument. When Wendy Carlos used it in A Clockwork Orange, it blew minds and eardrums. Then it caught on with rappers like Grandmaster Flash, electronic musicians like Kraftwerk and Dan Deacon, and … uh, Styx.
The thing with language is that when people use it a way we'd never imagine using it, it drives us crazy. It's why people from the Midwest will roll your eyes if you say "soda" and people from Atlanta will be weirded out if you say "pop."
But it's worth remembering that life experiences affect the way we talk or write. Earlier this month, Stanford professor and linguistics expert Daniel Jurafsky shared the results of his research on the way that bad restaurant experiences affect language—specifically, the language in restaurant reviews.
“These are exactly the same characteristics we see in people’s writing after they’ve been traumatised,” Jurafsky told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Jose. “These people have suffered minor traumas from bad service, rudeness, or being cheated."
If failing to get your order of mozzarella sticks is enough to affect your language, just think about what living your life must've done.