Get the Word! Podcast Episode: A Perfectly Cromulent Podcast Launch

 

Audio Transcript:  

Cromulent



Welcome to the first episode of Get the Word! An etymology podcast for word nerds. We’ll talk about the history and origin of words in English. If you’re coming over from The English Sessions, well, then I’ll give you even bigger welcome, loyal listener. The English Sessions is the podcast I’ve been doing for a while now, for English learners, and is where Get the Word! was first conceived.

I decided to make Get the Word! its own podcast, since I started to realize I was making content more for native English speakers with these etymology episodes, which seemed to warrant its own feed. Don’t worry though, for those of you who are English learners, there will still be transcripts of the episodes on the website. Look for details in the show notes.

… and I wanted to start off with a fun one, focusing on a word that perhaps you’ve never heard before. Cromulent. Now, you may be having one of two reactions right now. First, you may be thinking, “Well, look at that, Mike’s already making up words on the first episode of his new podcast”. I promise, this word IS in the dictionary.

You may be having a different reaction though, if you grew up watching the great animated series The Simpsons, like I did. Let’s step back in time just a little bit shall we? To the year 1996. The year in which flip phones hit the scene, Mission Impossible hit the theaters, and The Simpsons was still riding their wave of popularity with their 7th season on the Fox network.

In episode 16 of Season 7 of The Simpsons, which aired on February 18th, 1996 (I would have been 7 years old at the time) Lisa decides to write an essay for her school about Jebediah Springfield, the founder of Springfield, just in time for the town’s bicentennial. In her research, she uncovers information about Jebediah that would sully his reputation in the town. The episode is about her internal conflict with whether to reveal this new information to the public or keep it to herself and let her town have its hero.

This episode, which I and many others consider to be part of the Golden Age of The Simpsons, has some of the most quotable lines of the entire series, including this gem which is revealed to be the town motto: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. A fantastic town motto, which not only uplifts the spirit, but demonstrates just how clever the Simpsons writers were at the time.

You see, this memorable episode gave us not 1 but 2 made up words that have entered into the English lexicon. Aside from cromulent, which we’ll get to I promise, ‘embiggen’ is also an invention of the brilliant mind of Simpsons writer David X. Cohen. Both words are now listed in the Oxford dictionary, as well as other well respected English dictionaries. In Oxford, they recognize The Simpsons as the catalyst for popularizing ‘embiggen’ but also point out that its use in print has been traced back to the late 19th century, so we can’t give Cohen entire credit for that one.

Let’s get to cromulent. That’s what we’re here for, not ‘embiggen’, however I’m starting to think ‘embiggen’ may have to be its own episode in the future. Anyway, upon being reminded of the great town motto, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”, a teacher at Bart and Lisa’s school, Edna Krabappel turns to fellow teacher Miss Hoover and comments on how she’d never heard that word before she moved to Springfield. Hoover’s response has gone down as one of the best quotes of, dare I say, the entire 90s of American pop culture, with this line: “I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word”.

Leaving the viewer to infer a few different things. First, the meaning of the made up word, which you would assume means something like ‘acceptable’ or ‘valid’ based on the context. Two, you also must deduce that the brilliant Simpsons writers just made up one word in order to comment on the subtle use of another made up word mentioned earlier in the episode. I may be biased, but this, in my opinion, gives evidence to my theory that comedy was perfected in the 90s by The Simpsons.

Oxford confirms this inferred meaning with its entry for cromulent, credited to The Simpsons, with the definition: acceptable or adequate. As in these examples,”the continental breakfast was perfectly cromulent | however you spell it, it's certainly a cromulent word.” Thank you Oxford, for making ‘cromulent’ not only a perfectly acceptable, but also legitimate, neologism.

A neologism, which I’ve also heard pronounced ’neolOgism’, is a newly coined word, popular enough to be used widespread throughout the culture. Although ‘cromulent’ may have only entered dictionaries in recent years, its use among nerds of many nerd circles throughout the nerd culture proliferated right away, in the late 90s.

I went ahead and tried to find some uses of cromulent online from the 90s, apart from references to the episode or The Simpsons in general. Although some were hard to verify, I did find this gem from motorcycle.com established 1994, that has been hosting reviews of different motorcycles since at least the days of the Golden Age of The Simpsons. So let me share with you a little bit from the March 17th 1999 review of the ’99 Kawasaki Drifter 1500, reviewed by the Motorcycle Online staff: “Long, sweeping, cromulent and curvaceous fenders that look positively ostentatious.“

I have to give this writer credit, because throwing in the word cromulent proves that they are at least pulling descriptive words from current pop culture and not just from their thesaurus. This would have been too early to have seen ‘cromulent’ in any credible dictionary. Cromulent thrown into a list of other adjectives makes it more likely to be given only a quick glance before the reader just assumes the meaning, and assumes that they should not challenge the validity of the writing staff of a fine website like motorcycle.com.

The uses I was finding from the 90s were often review pages; user submitted reviews; even the occasional academic paper. So why did this word catch on and start to permeate throughout the culture so quickly? Well, it came about in the age of the internet, which helps us track the use of a word immensely; it comes from inarguably one of the most popular and successful television shows of that time and also, perhaps, it filled a word void, proving its useful nature through early adopters like the motorcycle.com reviewing staff. After the break, we’ll explore the idea that cromulent is not just any plain old synonym for ‘adequate’ or ‘acceptable’, but perhaps is something a bit more nuanced. After this.

— Break —

Cromulent, if you recall, is used in the Simpsons episode Lisa the Iconoclast in an attempt to describe another made up word that has never been challenged by an entire town’s worth of people; just like how the reputation of Jebediah Springfield had never been challenged by the town before. So, the layers of ridiculousness point to a layer of irony in its use that was surely picked up on by at least some of its early adopters. Suzanne Kemmer of the Rice University Neologisms Database points out this fact in this description of the word: “The ironic quality of this word derives from the fact that it was a word invented to defend the credibility of another invented word. Simpsons fans soon started using this word in its ironic sense, to describe things that were positively ridiculous, but since they were sarcastic as they said this, the actual meaning is opposite.“



Lemme share with you a few other examples, and let you decide for yourself how the writer intended to use it. Here’s a title of a conference paper written for the 4th International Conference on Geotechnics for Sustainable Infrastructure Development, held on 28-29 Nov 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam: Diatomaceous soils: a less than cromulent engineering material.

One of my favorite finds was from the 2020 Baseball Prospectus, a handy guide for Major League Baseball fans, in which the delightful word ‘cromulent’ is used at least 3 times. Now, I’m not a big sports guy, so I’ll let some of you decide if the writer is including a layer of irony in their use: (3 quotes)


Quote: “Faedo is still a cromulent pitching prospect in his own right, with plenty of indicators for future success. AND: He had also introduced a cromulent changeup to attack lefties. “

Cromulent is a relatively new word, but this suffix is not... the suffix -lent or -ulent often means ‘full of’ something. “Corpulent”, a word that Oxford simply defines as ‘a fat person’ is from the Latin corpus, the body, and then our suffix. Full of body! The word ‘fraudulent’, it’s full of fraud! Opulent, full of wealth, again from a Latin root, “Opes” meaning ‘wealth’. And my favorite, purulent again from Latin ‘pur’ or ‘pus’, where we get the word ‘pus’. Full of pus. Does this give credence to cromulent as a word filling an important role in the lexicon? When something is cromulent, it’s not just adequate or acceptable, perhaps it’s filled to the brim with adequacy. Perhaps it’s oozing over with acceptability, just like your purulent wound oozing over with pus.

_______

According to Google’s NGRAM viewer, which tracks the popularity of word use in printed media in books and on the internet (remember this, because NGRAM will be used quite often on Get the Word!), the peak of cromulent’s popularity came back in 2011, a perfectly cromulent year in my opinion.

Here’s one fantastic 2011 use of the word, from Alex Horne, the author of Wordwatching: One Man's Quest for Linguistic Immortality, giving credence to my word-void theory, as he is using it for a very specific purpose and meaning, commenting on how words are adopted by a language.


Commenting on how quickly and easily a society can adopt new words and phrases, Horne writes this sentence:
https://www.google.com/books/edition/Wordwatching/SM25X57hT6QC?hl=en&gbpv=0

very clever…

My guesses as to why cromulent’s popularity peaked in 2011 would only be speculative, but I imagine that with a word entering the lexicon from pop culture, the world will only be as relevant as the source of culture itself, unless it truly fills a GAPING word-void, which may not be the case for ‘cromulent’. It’s fun to say; it has its purpose and place, but has it ever truly caught on with people outside of the fandom of The Simpsons? What are your thoughts? Do you ever use cromulent, and do you find that it serves an important purpose, or do you think there are plenty of other cromulent words you can use to convey the same meaning?

THAT SOUND MEANS we’re opening up our Fact Cabinet. A few random facts about the topic we have on display here. Ahh, here’s my signed copy of the script for the Simpsons’ 1995 episode “A Star is Burns”. You know whose signature I couldn’t  get on this script though is Matt Groening’s. Probably because he did not want anything to do with this crossover episode. Featuring the voice of John Lovitz as Jay Sherman, this episode brought the world of The Critic, another animated Fox series at the time (originally on ABC), and The Simpsons into the same universe, which Groening did not want any part of. He is quoted as saying, “"The two reasons I am opposed to this crossover is that I don't want any credit or blame for The Critic and I feel this (encroachment of another cartoon character) violates the Simpsons' universe," which he told the Los Angeles Times. "The Critic has nothing to do with The Simpsons' world." Pretty harsh words directed toward a show created by two of The Simpsons’ most brilliant writers, Al Jean and Mike Reiss. Yes, crossovers are usually pretty stupid, but as a boy I remember being pretty excited at the time to see Jay and Homer together on the same show.

Ok let’s see what else is in the fact cabinet. Ah, here’s the cane from Citizen Kane. How’d that get in here?

Here’s a box full of the shredded remains of George H. W. Bush’s memoirs. Did you know that the Bushes absolutely hated The Simpsons and believed it was morally corrupting America? Our dear one term president of the late 80s and early 90s once told a bunch of religious broadcasters at a convention that American families need to be: “"a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.””

Barbara Bush once said of the show, “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen”; to which Marge Simpson herself responded in a public letter which included this jab back at Barbara: ““Ma'am, if we're the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.””

That’s perhaps why it feels extra satisfying seeing H. W. being tormented by his new neighbors The Simpsons when the Bushes move into Springfield in the classic episode Two Bad Neighbors, in which the Bushes are eventually driven out of town by the residents of 742 Evergreen Terrace. It may come as no surprise, but the Simpsons staff did NOT get George H. W. Bush to voice the cartoon version of himself.

That’s all for today’s episode…

Write in to the podcast: getthewordpodcast@gmail.com . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is getthewordpodcast@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you.


NGRAM

GOOGLE SEARCHES REVEAL its use poppping up in review sites including movies and this one: https://www.motorcycle.com/manufacturer/kawasaki/1999-kawasaki-drifter-1500-15096.html

4th International Conference on Geotechnics for Sustainable Infrastructure Development, held on 28-29 Nov 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-15-2184-3_92

neologism

a suffix occurring in adjectives borrowed from Latin, with the meaning “having in quantity, full of” that specified by the initial element: corpulent; fraudulent; opulent; purulent. (dictionary.com)

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center: https://monroevillemusiccenter.bandcamp.com/track/the-perfect-planet
And Kevin Macleod https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Jazz_Sampler/Faster_Does_It_1271

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches: https://brunofsanches.myportfolio.com/

OXFORD: Cromulent - acceptable or adequate

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/cromulent (acceptable or legitimate) (Latin suffix)
https://www.dictionary.com/browse/-ulent

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/58647/10-words-simpsons-made-famous

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisa_the_Iconoclast

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neologism

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=cromulent&year_start=1994&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3#

https://books.google.com/books?id=4SrPDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT1152&lpg=PT1152&dq=cromulent&source=bl&ots=mCw13GSTkb&sig=ACfU3U3A5SiCZ5TDUXibMVeE2CKMejb7VQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiY49nP56HvAhWUOn0KHc7yB_s4qgEQ6AEwEXoECBEQAw#v=onepage&q&f=false

https://www.google.com/search?q=as+the+conversion+option+but+hit+return+for+all+other+queries+,+as+the+defaults+are+cromulent&sxsrf=ALeKk02EqMixiPd-qwtW1TXSi2Ih-v8RKg:1615242862561&source=lnms&tbm=bks&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjB0LHI4KHvAhXyOn0KHTYvAUAQ_AUoAXoECAQQCw&biw=1280&bih=675

ironic/opposite: https://neologisms.rice.edu/index.php?a=term&d=1&t=3161

https://www.nine.com.au/entertainment/viral/embiggens-added-to-dictionary-new-words-merriam-webster/47bf861e-7815-4093-949f-984fc67b4883

https://mrpopculture.com/pop-culture-in-review-for-the-year-1996/

https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/merriam-webster-adds-embiggen/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-does-cromulent-mean

https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/internets-favorite-words/cromulent

https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Jazz_Sampler/Faster_Does_It_1271

https://bigsoundbank.com

https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/503463/10-things-you-might-not-have-known-about-simpsons

https://freemusicarchive.org/music/The_Chronic_Sleepers/But_Sometimes_We_Cannot_Sleep/Do_It_Yourself_But_With_Me

https://freepd.com/epic.php

Music and sound effects credits given throughout podcast series


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