or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Master Piece

Last year I mentioned an extraordinary little animated film called Biovisions: The Inner Life of the Cell. Only today did I discover the same (somewhat longer) film, without the gorgeous music, but with a narration that explains exactly what's going on at each step of the process. If you watched the early one, you really should watch this one, too, and if you haven't watched the earlier one, then please do: it's magical.

It turns out that what we're watching isn't just a bunch of random cellular inner workings, but a specific chain of events: the transportation of a leukocyte--a white blood cell--from the bloodstream to the site of an infection or inflammation so it can do its job. I thought it was absorbing and well worth watching (though I had to keep a running commentary in my head trying to pick apart the unfamiliar, but analyzable, words), but I'm such a huge geek that when I saw the big ruffly lamellar object in one scene I thought, "That's the Golgi apparatus, isn't it?", from some dimly remembered childhood readings on the subject, and was thrilled when that's what it turned out to be.

So: I am the sort of person who, with a history of voracious reading but absolutely no training in biology, knows and cares what the Golgi apparatus is. This, I think, tells you a great deal about me.


On Friday past I was talking about made-up words and the great pliability of the English language when it comes to such inventions. As I had been composing the post in my head, the perfect example had come to mind and promptly been forgotten until Saturday, when it was too late to include it. So here it is.

A seventh-season episode of The Simpsons (back when it was one of the best things on television rather than a sorry waste of time) called Lisa the Iconoclast contains a scene with the children watching a cheap, badly written and historically biased classroom film about the founder of their town, Jebediah Springfield. At the climax of the film, the camera pulls in on the actor playing Jebediah--even the microphone hauls into view--and he says in a manner known to anyone who's ever seen a historical film of this sort, "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Two teachers, who've no doubt seen the film a dozen times before, have this conversation:

Mrs. Krabappel: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.
Miss Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

"Embiggens" certainly is a perfectly something word. It isn't a word word, any more than "encrudulate" was, and yet it immediately opens itself up to analysis; once again, any speaker of English knows exactly what it means. It's a macaronic, which is no sin in English: it's assembled from French "en-", converted to "em-" before labial consonants such as "-b-" and "-p-"; "big", which is Middle English but probably derived from one of the Norse tongues, which contributed a great many hard-gee sounds to English; and Germanic "-en", an extremely common verb terminator (to this day, all German verbs, as far as I know, end in those two letters except for "tun", "to do", which is irregular in every language I know). "Embiggen" is a clever, plausible coinage.

It's harder to know what to make of "cromulent", which, of course, is exactly the point. It seems to mean "common" or "legitimate" in this context, but its derivation is a mystery. That suffix "-ent" (or its brother "-ant") is often used in English as a way of turning words into adjectives: it can be tacked onto verbs intact, as in "expect/expectant", "absorb/absorbent", and it serves as an adapter for nouns that end in "-ence" or "-ance", such as "variance/variant", "magnificence/magnificent". It's the stem that is, deliberately, the puzzle: there's nothing in English quite like "cromul-", though the nonce-word is so well constructed if you came across "cromulent" in a dictionary, you wouldn't be at all surprised. (If you're me, though, you'd demand an etymology.)

Later in the episode, after Homer has tried out for the job of town crier, the joke is reiterated and made even funnier:

Police Chief Wiggum: Good God he is fabulous!
Principal Skinner: Yes, he's embiggened that role with his cromulent performance.

Since we've only heard school employees use these two words, it seems as if they've been learned from badly made school-use films. "Embiggened" is used here in a rather dubious sense, given its obvious meaning, but at least it's a little bit plausible: "cromulent" in this context is a complete impossibility, as its use is nothing like Miss Hoover's. Does Skinner even know what the word means? Does Miss Hoover? Does anyone? Are (theoretically) educated people in the educational system using it deliberately to confuse other citizens and appear smart? It all calls to mind a passage from Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"; Humpty Dumpty has just made what he considers to be a compelling point and caps it by saying:

"There's glory for you!"

"I don't know what you mean by `glory,' " Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"

"But `glory' doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument," Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."


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