"Embiggen" Not in OED

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Sun Aug 3 22:38:40 UTC 2014

One of the great neologisms of our time seems to have escaped the attention of the OED and Merriam-Webster.  I refer, of course, to the word "embiggen," seemingly introduced by the 1996 "Simpsons" episode entitled "Lisa the Iconoclast," which reveals that the Springfield town motto is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man."  A Google search for "embiggen" turns up 755,000 hits; there would be more if inflected forms were also searched for.

The OED should note, if it has not already, that "embiggen" is actually a 19th-century neologism:

1884 _Notes and Queries_ 16 Aug. 135  I believe it to be beyond the power of Prof. Skeat or any other scholar or grammarian to settle what substantive, or even adjective, shall be turned into a verb when the many-mouthed beast takes it into its head to make one. ... Cricket has its slang; football has its slang; and lawn tennis has its genteel slang.  But fresh slang coming up destroys old slang, and it is this we must look to, and not to grammarians, to rid the dictionaries of the jargon that "neweth every day."  Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages?  ... the people magnified them, to make great or _embiggen_, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.  After all, use is nearly everything.  C. A. WARD.

(This occurrence is not my own discovery, but is mentioned, for example, in Wikipedia.)  Is it possible that one of the Harvard-educated "Simpsons" screenwriters was familiar with the esoteric 1884 discussion?  How cromulent that would be.

Fred Shapiro

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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