Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Embiggen and other go-figure puzzles in English

Click to embiggen
You see it all the time: a smallish image posted on a web page, and an instruction telling visitors how to view it at higher-resolution. Maybe: "Click to enlarge." Or: "Click for a larger image."

Ho hum.

But Tom Tomorrow (a.k.a. Dan Perkins) doesn't leave memos-to-readers that are as pedestrian as those. Nope. Not only is Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World consistently in my top tier of Best Progressive Political Comic Strips, but when his material appears on Daily Kos (which is where I look for his work nowadays), a visitor is instructed that to see a larger image of the comic, s/he should:
Click to embiggen.
This warms my heart.

I've met plenty of neologisms I loathe: to Facebook or to friend, for example. Or to calendar, as in "Let's calendar a meeting with the marketing people. Dick, can you PowerPoint the product positives by next week?"

OTOH, there are as many others that I've adopted whole hog, like zillions of other English speakers: to Google, for one. Or internet, for that matter. Or grok, my personal favorite among neologisms of the '60s (though "Bogart" was pretty good too, as in Don't Bogart that joint, my friend).

But embiggen? There's something about embiggen that feels so right I want to grin every time I see the word in action.

You may already be familiar with the origin of "embiggen" ... but I wasn't until I decided recently to suss out where Tom Tomorrow found it. There's nothing secret about the word: it came from The Simpsons. Not originally, exactly, but epidemiologically speaking. Sort of.

Here's how the word's origin is described on Wikipedia, in an entry about the episode of The Simpsons in which "embiggen" occurs:
"Lisa the Iconoclast" is the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons' seventh season. [...]

The episode features two neologisms: embiggen and cromulent. [...] The Springfield town motto is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Schoolteacher Edna Krabappel comments that she never heard the word embiggens until she moved to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, "I don't know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word." [...]

Embiggen—in the context it is used in the episode—is a verb that was coined by Dan Greaney in 1996. The verb previously occurred in an 1884 edition of the British journal Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. by C. A. Ward, in the sentence "but the people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all, use is nearly everything." The literal meaning of embiggen is to make something larger. The word has made its way to common use [...]
Here's the relevant excerpt from the show itself:





So I was thinking about how much I lurve the word "embiggen" on my way to work the other day, and when I got there I found the usual daily e-mail from the Chronicle of Higher Education (I work for a university). In that e-missive I found a link to an article by a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, Geoffrey Pullum. The article is titled Coming and Going and it appeared in the CHE on 19 Feb 2014. It's about how English doesn't behave. And how there's not a ding-dang thing to be done about it.

The article started me considering the probability that, for people who speak English as a second or third or fourth language, words like "embiggen" must be crazymaking. Not even a teensy-weensy bit heartwarming.

Excerpting from Pullum's piece:
I heard a Brazilian iron-ore magnate speaking on a BBC news program about how he had become so rich, and he said that at one point "the price of iron ore came from $10 a ton to $180 a ton." I realized that there was a subtle mistake in English usage here: Even if the price is still $180 now, we do not say that the price came from $10 to $180; we say the price went from $10 to $180. But why?

Come is standardly used for motion (including metaphorical motion) toward the notional location providing the utterer’s reference point: We talk about going away but coming back. It would be quite reasonable to imagine talking about a price starting at some remote point in past time and climbing up the metaphorical price curve, while proceeding along the time axis, toward its present point on the graph. Visualizing ourselves as located at the current price point, we could see the price as climbing up toward where we are now.

But we don’t. In fact we never seem to do anything like that. It is the future that comes; the past goes away.
The future comes and the past goes away? That's not what Creedence Clearwater Revival sang.

But more to the question of price movements, does the matter of iron ore prices going from $10 to $180/ton make more sense to me than coming from $10 to $180/ton because, having had my consciousness shaped in the United States, I understand that the coming and going of prices has nothing to do with my own superfluous presence at the location of a price point, but with movement that occurs from the price's own point of view. Here in 'Merica, corporations are people. Why shouldn't prices themselves have consciousness, and even agency? Perhaps even souls, by gum!

Anyway.

The word "embiggen" seems so cozy to me, so on the mark, so that's not a word, but boy is it cute! because ...
  • Embiggen is a little bit "enlarge" and a little bit "enlighten."
  • It's a monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon word bracketed by a Latinate prefix and an Old English suffix; so it's kind of awkward, but in a funkalicious way.
  • It's a word that you can easily imagine being spoken by a wide-eyed, ebullient four year old who just watched a blimp inflate.




And so on.

In an early post to One Finger Typing, I paraphrased my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Barbara Ballou, who scolded the whelps in her charge if we dared claim a stylistic right to break the rules of grammar in essays on Billy Shakespeare, say, or Nate Hawthorne: You have no right to break the rules until you know what they are and how to apply them, she informed us.

I admired Miss Ballou a great deal. She was one of the best teachers I ever had, and I've had some doozies. But here's what Geoffrey Pullum has to say about rules, logic, common sense, and speaking English:
The important lesson, to me, is that it isn't logic or common sense that prevents us from saying that [the iron-ore price came from $10 to $180]. It just isn't how we use the language, that’s all.

Don’t ask me why. I genuinely don't know. What I do know is that English lexical semantics (and, I assume, the lexical semantics of any other language) is extraordinarily complex. It continues to astonish me that I learned the meanings of the words I know. Even simple words like come and go. 
[...]

[T]here is no guarantee that English will or ever could be logical. English is the way it is: Its rules, some of them quite strict, evolved the way they did over the past millennium without being under any constraint of a directly logical nature.

The user of the language is constrained only by the hundreds of millions of their fellow speakers, who unwittingly negotiate every day about how to set the conventions of usage that define them too as English speakers. Railing against the decision of a few tens of millions of our fellow speakers who have adopted or abandoned some expression is, to put it in terms of the old joke, like trying to teach a pig to sing: It not only wastes your time, it also annoys the pig.
Professor Pullum has a cromulent point.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room
Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics: words, meaning, and wacky translations
Are computer languages really languages?
Raising a glass to Miss Ballou



Thanks to wordle.net for the word cloud of Lewis Carroll's "Jaberwocky," from Through the Looking-glass.

1 comment:

  1. Thnx for the Terman flashback.So..unexpected. I knew an accomplished wordsmith who prefaced his witticisms with"Drizzle drazzle drizzle drome .." Swear.

    ReplyDelete