To Embiggen

Scientific American reports that a nonsense word from The Simpsons has made its way into a scientific paper. Stanford University physicist Shamit Kachru managed to slip the word "embiggen" into a journal article titled "Gauge/gravity duality and meta-stable dynamical supersymmetry breaking."

The word embiggen first appeared in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons. It was used by Jebediah Springfield in these lines of dialogue:
Jebediah: [on film] A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
Edna: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield
Ms. Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.
Here's how Kachru used the word in his article:
While in both cases for P anti-D3-branes the probe approximation is clearly not good, in the set up of this paper we could argue that there is a competing effect which can overcome the desire of the anti-D3s to embiggen, namely their attraction towards the wrapped D5s. Hence, also on the gravity side, the non-supersymmetric states would naively be meta-stable.
This isn't the first time joke words have made their way into usage. I think the words "hornswoggle" and "absquatulate" started out as jokes, invented by people in the midwest. But now they appear in many dictionaries.


Posted on Wed Aug 01, 2007


All words have to be invented sometime.
Posted by Captain Al  on  Wed Aug 01, 2007  at  01:59 AM
Isn't "chortle" from Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll? Also, the spiny tail end of stegosaurs is officially called "thagomizer", after a Gary Larson cartoon.
Posted by Lars Dietz  on  Wed Aug 01, 2007  at  07:13 AM
Case in point: Stephen Colbert's "truthiness"; one might point out that GWBs regular mangleation (you can have that one, no charge) of words like "nuclear" into "Nuke-ya-lar", and "rekkonize", from "recoGnize", both now commonly used by people who probably grew up too close to large power lines. BTW, if "mangleation" gets inyo the popular lexicon, you can give the creditizing to me, thanks
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Wed Aug 01, 2007  at  07:16 AM
One of the nonsense words that made a career in physics is the "quark".

The word was originally coined by Murray Gell-Mann as a nonsense word rhyming with "pork".[1] Later, he found the same word in James Joyce's book Finnegans Wake, where seabirds give "three quarks", akin to three cheers (probably onomatopoeically imitating a seabird call, like "quack" for ducks, as well as making a pun on the relationship between Munster and its provincial capital, Cork) in the passage "Three quarks for Muster Mark!/Sure he has not got much of a bark/And sure any he has it's all beside the mark." Further explanation for the use of the word "quark" may be derived from the fact that, at the time, there were only three known quarks in existence.
Posted by nadine  on  Thu Aug 02, 2007  at  01:13 AM
I like this bit:

'When I gave a draft of one of the papers using this word to Joe Polchinski [of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara] and asked him to among other things to comment on the referencing in the paper, he replied "Your referencing looks perfectly cromulent."'

Simpsonites shall know each other by the cromulence of their linguistifucation!
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Aug 02, 2007  at  04:37 AM
I've got a good one. In the classic comedy show, Not the Nine O'Clock News, Gerald the gorilla referred to his group of gorillas as a 'flange'. This word was not used for a group of anything at the time, although it was rude slang (never mind what for).

But...scientists picked up on it, and started to use it, and now flange is the official collective noun for a bunch of baboons.
Posted by Nona  on  Thu Aug 02, 2007  at  06:39 AM
That's brilliant, Nona! I know the sketch well ("It's a 'whoop', Professor, it's a 'whoop' of gorillas, it's a 'flange' of baboons...") but I never knew about its linguistic impact! That gem will make me the star of parties - the perfect punchline to my renowned one-man recital of the sketch!

(The original is on YouTube, BTW:
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Aug 02, 2007  at  07:18 AM
Well, there's also the possibility that a nonsense word has been snuck in to either generate interest or to see if someone actually read the article.

My father, as part of a 28-page assignment wrote, at the bottom, 'I have included the word 'potato' in this paper three times. If you cannot tell me where, I will know you have not read my paper.'

The joke being, of course, that there were only two 'potato's hidden in the body of the text. The third being in the sentence at the bottom. He got a B+ and a 'you vicious little git'.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  on  Fri Aug 03, 2007  at  02:54 AM
Also, once upon a time, about 1800, a man in a bar in Dublin bet the other one that he couldn't invent a word and have everyone saying by the next day. The man took the bet, and spent all day painting it on walls all over town. By the next night, everyone was wondering what the word was, and what it meant, and eventually it passed into general usage.

The word was 'quiz'.

i love words. Sometime they just have the most bizarre beginnings.
Posted by Nona  on  Fri Aug 03, 2007  at  07:17 AM
When I heard that story the word was 'enigma'... it wasn't true then, either (or at least, there's no evidence to support it whatsoever). As Michael Quinion at World Wide Words puts it, that etymology is 'best viewed through the bottom of a glass of something Irish'.

The real origin of 'quiz' was as an acronym used by 18th cenbtry naval naturalists to qualify tentative records of sightings of possibly misidentified sea-creatures: it stood for 'Questionable, Uncertain, or Ingenious Zoography'. With the advent of more professional observing and recording techniques (as pioneered by Darwin, Huxley, and so on) the term fell out of use in zoology (or 'zoography' as it was then known), though it had by that point entered the language in the sense we know today.

An interesting side note: a secondary and now archaic meaning of 'quiz' was 'foolish persoin', like 'buffoon' or 'numbskull'; this arose from the way the new generation of naturalists derided their amateurish and incompetent forbears as 'quizzes' or 'quizzers', based on their overuse of this imprecise term*.

*Historical fact.
Posted by outeast  on  Fri Aug 03, 2007  at  07:47 AM
Actually, Outeast, you should probably read Quinion a little more deeply, because he says repeatedly on his website and in his books that there is no such thing as a word "based on an 18th century acronym." Or a 17th century acronym or 19th century acronym. Acronyms, according to Quinion and others, are exclusively a 20th- (and later) century phenomenon, and generally in the later half of the 20th century. An actual example is "scuba," which really did start its life as an acronym.

So there's no way that "quiz" ever stood for "Questionable, Uncertain, or Ingenious Zoography." I wish it had because it's a fun story, but alas, it is not to be. In the same way, golf and sh*t certainly didn't start as acronyms either. Any of those stories you hear that start out with the assumption that a word that began before the 20th century began as an acronym are wrong wrong wrong.

Quinion says that as is so often the case with word origins, those for "quiz" are uncertain. He says, "It was first recorded in the late 1700s, in the sense of an odd or eccentric person. Later it became another word for a joke or a witticism and only about the middle of the nineteenth century did it take on the modern meaning of a more-or-less formal set of questions."

I'm curious to see what he makes of "embiggen," but there's nothing on his website so far.

Lewis Carroll apparently did invent "chortle," though, at least according to Quinion and other language gurus that I've read.
Posted by Kathlen  on  Fri Aug 03, 2007  at  08:18 AM
Aw, Kathlen, I spent ages coming up with a plausible naval acronym for 'quiz'! 😝 Spoilsport!
Posted by outeast  on  Fri Aug 03, 2007  at  08:28 AM
You poor thing. I weep for you, I really do. I'll bet that in particular, the "z" part was really difficult, too.
Posted by Kathleen  on  Fri Aug 03, 2007  at  08:45 AM
Bleh Harry. I wanted to make a truthiness joke but you beat me to the word. See, this is why I can't leave MoH for an entire week again.
Posted by Razela  on  Sat Aug 04, 2007  at  01:20 AM
I see your Bleh and raise you one Oy, two Sheeshes and three Cripes. That would be called Razelescalation
Posted by Hairy Houdini  on  Sat Aug 04, 2007  at  06:24 AM
"Cromulent" seems to be more widely used that "embiggen". I've heard several people describe an obscure or invented word as "perfectly cromulent" if it is queried.
Posted by Robert N  on  Thu Aug 09, 2007  at  09:34 AM
Robert: Given that 'cromulent' presumably means something like 'valid and current', using it to defend an 'obscure or invented word' is clearly an in-joke rather than naturalization of the word itself.
Posted by outeast  on  Thu Aug 09, 2007  at  09:41 AM
The first known use of "embiggen" was actually in 1884. William John Thomas et alios, Notes and Queries, A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc, page 135. Quote:
"...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."

Although the writers of the Simpsons did not know that at the time.

Also, "cromulent" is entirely their invention as far as anybody can tell.
Posted by Otto  on  Wed Sep 26, 2007  at  01:15 PM
I'm a bit late on this, but no-one has mentioned the whole point of Jebedia Springfield inventing the word embiggen was to match/parody Thomas Jefferson's invention of the word belittle.
Posted by Richard of York  on  Tue Mar 18, 2008  at  05:08 PM
I'd like to see some support for the claim that anyone other than Wikipedia pranksters have taken up the term "flange" to describe a troop of baboons.
Posted by Peter da Silva  on  Sun Oct 12, 2008  at  05:26 AM
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