The Grammarphobia Blog

A perfectly cromulent word

Q: The neologism “cromulent” would feel positive to me even if I didn’t know its context from The Simpsons. This despite the fact that “lent” endings are often associated with negative words as opposed to the more neutral words with “ism” and “logue” suffixes. Any comment?

A: Some prefixes and suffixes have inherently positive or negative connotations (“pro,” “anti,” “mal,” etc.).

Others, like “logue,” can be either neutral (as in “catalogue,” “dialogue,” “analogue”) or negative (“ideologue”).

The “ism” suffix is pretty much neutral in and of itself, but it’s attached to words that may have positive (“idealism”), negative (“fatalism”), or neutral (“organism”) connotations.

The “lent” suffix is also neutral in and of itself. It’s merely used to form adjectives. However, many of the adjectives in which we find it are on the negative side: “turbulent,” “violent,” “pestilent,” and even “sanguinolent,” now chiefly used in pathology to mean bloodstained.

As for “cromulent,” it was coined for a 1996 Simpsons episode entitled “Lisa the Iconoclast.” Since then, it has been insinuating itself into the English language.

I got more than 63,000 hits when I googled the word, which appears in titles like the Cromulent Shakespeare Company, the Cromulent Knitter, Cromulent Music, and Cromulent Design.

I don’t find “cromulent” yet in standard dictionaries, but Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon describes it as a slang adjective meaning fine or acceptable.

In the 1996 Simpsons episode, the Springfield town motto is “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.”

When Edna Krabappel, a schoolteacher, says she never heard the word “embiggens” before moving to Springfield, another teacher, Miss Hoover, replies, “I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

Although “embiggens” is often cited as another Simpsons neologism, it first appeared in print more than a century earlier – in an 1884 issue of Notes and Queries, a scholarly journal devoted to the English language.

In a debate among the journal’s correspondents about slang, one writer comments that the best way to rid dictionaries of unwanted jargon is to let fresh slang come along and replace old slang.

The author, C. A. Ward, cites several “barbarous verbs” in other languages, then coins his own: “to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

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