Embiggening the role of a playful neolexeme

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I was a little surprised to encounter the neolexeme embiggen in a perfectly serious Economist report about Ascension Island:

If a future turn of events in Africa was seen as requiring the island's military role to be embiggened and its facilities rendered much more secure, it might be convenient if the islanders had no legal right to remain where they were.

It is well known that embiggen was coined by Dan Greaney for an episode of The Simpsons, and Wikipedia reports that it "has seen use in several scientific publications" already. I wonder if it might really be taking off as a mainstream item of vocabulary.

That might put Dan Greaney into the very select club of people who invented words that make it into major dictionaries. A club containing him and very few others, such as the fellow Simpsons writer David S. Cohen ([now known as David X. Cohen, as commenters below point out] who coined cromulent for a Simpsons episode), Robert Heinlein (who coined grok in Stranger in a Strange Land), and (I blush modestly to confess) also me. I coined the term eggcorn, which has made it to the OED, as well as two words that are likely to make it in the future: the widely used linguistic technical term unaccusative, and the scientific term vortensity (designed to order for some Santa Cruz astronomers, and introduced in J. C. B. Papaloizou and Douglas N. C. Lin, "Nonaxisymmetric instabilities in thin self-gravitating rings and disks", Astrophysical Journal, Part 1, 344 [Sept. 15, 1989], 645-668; it now gets some 1300 Google hits).


  1. Ellen said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    I've always wondered about this word. What's wrong with enlarge? It's shorter, both written and spoken, and, to my ear, sounds better. I think it's a little sad that the Simpsons is a source for words used in a well-known news source, but what do I know?

  2. Leo said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    "the very select club of people who invented words that make it into major dictionaries"

    I call those people coinlexers.

  3. Gadi said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    I'm sure that it's used tongue-in-cheek, though, in order to stand out to those who get the reference.

  4. Jeff DeMarco said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    Tongue in cheek or not, embiggen's presence seems to be embiggening!

  5. Bob X. LeDrew said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Great post. However, since 1998, Cohen has been known as "David X. Cohen" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_X._Cohen#Name_change)

  6. Chris said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 11:00 am

    Isn't it David X. Cohen?

  7. George said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    'Eggcorn' fills a semantic gap. But, what does 'embiggen' add to the English lexicon?

    Is there a subtle difference in connotation with words like 'enlarge,' 'expand,' 'increase,' etc. that I have missed?

  8. Leo said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    The original (fictional) quote is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man". So in The Simpsons, it means something like "ennoble" or "dignify". You couldn't replace "embiggen" in that quote with "enlarge", "expand" or "increase" – it would sound like some weird anatomical transformation.

    But the Economist is using it in the more straightforward sense of "enlarge".

  9. Jose M. Blanco said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    I doubt that The Economist would use a word like "embiggen" in a frivoulous, tongue in cheek manner. The writer and the editorial staff (or at least the copy editor for that particular piece) must beleive that the word is legitimate. There is nothing wrong with using a neologism, provided an equivalent word does not exist, e.g. "I googled the term 'embiggened.'" The words "expand" and "enlarge" seem to accomplish the same thing.

  10. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    @Jose M.Blanco

    If you doubt that the Economist might occasionally be frivolous, just take a look at the captions on some of their photographs

  11. Richard Bilson said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    It's interesting that the joke, by virtue of its success, has rendered itself unfunny. Those of us of a certain age will have to explain to future generations why "it seems like a perfectly cromulent word to me" is a punch line.

  12. Chris Kern said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    Don't forget the headlines; the Economist loves puns in headlines. (Most pictures don't even have captions unless they're going to be jokes!)

  13. George said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    @Leo: In the Simpsons' context, 'embiggen' does seems to fill a gap. I think is because we use big and small in referring to one's social status or character. An enlarged heart would not be the same as an embiggened one.

  14. Kevin Iga said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    Apparently "embiggen" was independently coined in 1884:

  15. linda seebach said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    I know someone who told me once how he coined "humongous" — at Iowa State, around 1960. On a dare, if I remember correctly. Actually, he said "mungus" and he launched it into the collective brains of the student body through the campus radio station, with sentences like "So the guy drives up in this big *mungus* Cadillac . . ." and everybody knew, even if they'd never heard the word before, exactly what kind of flamboyant, ostentatious car that was. I think there was a stint in the Army that helped spread the word, too. And once it was out there, it mutated into humongous because, well, it sounded bigger to people.

    I don't know how to check all those lovely corpora you have, to see whether there was an earlier use, but I heard the story not more than a few years afterward.

  16. Kevin Iga said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    The OED lists "humongous" as having uncertain origin, and lists the first citation as 1970. Your friend's story is therefore within the realm of possibility. Maybe he should contact the good folks at the OED.

  17. Adam said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    Is "neolexeme" a neologism too?

  18. Dave M said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

    Maybe there's hope for "debigulator" (or "rebigulator") should someone invent them.

  19. George said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

    @Adam: In 1803, neologism was a neologism.

  20. Kathleen said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    A friend of mine used to teach American history at the University of Kansas. The day after the "embiggen" episode of the Simpsons first ran, he went into the classroom and wrote, "Abraham Lincoln: A Noble Spirit Embiggens the Nation" on the chalkboard. Much to his chagrin, nobody even blinked. They just obediently copied it down.

  21. Carl said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 5:28 pm


    As an adjunct, I don't find that surprising. The job of a college prof is to introduce to the young the basic parameters of the world around us. If I used the word "embiggen" my non-Simpsons watching students would surely find it no stranger than "modus tollens" or "begging the question" or whatever else I have taught them.

  22. Dave said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    I don't know why people are complaining about embiggen. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

    I find the rest of the sentence quite awkward though.

  23. Kevin Iga said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    On another note, "ensmallen" seems to have taken off:

  24. Rubrick said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    I love that "cromulent"'s function in the Simpsons was specifically in support of "embiggen". I hadn't known they came from two different writers. (The scene in the Simpsons is a complete throwaway; it's fascinating how tenaciously it took hold.)

  25. Vincent Daly said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

    There's an episode in which Homer and Marge get to fly first class, and Homer is given a copy of the Economist. "Look at me, Marge! I'm reading the Economist! Did you know Indonesia is at a crossroads?"

    Subsequently the Economist headlined a story "Indonesia at a Crossroads." "Embiggens" is certainly a similar in-joke. Not as funny, though.

  26. Craig said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

    Maybe they saw it here and said, "Heck, it must be a word then! It has the Language Log Seal of Approval™ "

  27. Rick said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    A quick Google seach seemed to show a lot of instances of "embiggen" (although a lot are "click to embiggen" or some variation of that), and also its variant "enbiggen" (or is "embiggen" a varient of "enbiggen"?)

    I found no relevant hits for "embig" (lots of hits, with other meanings, but I saw none (I did not check them all, of course) that seemed to mean "to make bigger" – yes, I know I will probably be contradicted by someone who takes my "none" as a challenge rather than an observation).

    The form "ensmall" seems to be more several times more popular than "ensmallen" for to "make small".

    Google reported a few relevant uses of "enlittle", and only three examples of "enlittlen" (it gave four, but one was reported twice).

    To my ear, the -en ending sounds somewhat humorous, and pretty much demands a single-syllable base word; "enlittlen" seems to be not quite a word, while "enlittle" sounds more english-word-ish. That "ensmall" seems to beat our "ensmallen" seems to me to be unsurprising. That "embiggen" beats out "embig" may be because the it has a literary (of sorts) origin, while "ensmall" and "enlittle" are more naturally derived terms from the source words "enlarge" and "embiggen".

  28. George said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    @Rick: " . . . is "embiggen" a variant of "enbiggen"?"

    I think the underlying form is /en-/ but it assimilates to place of articulation of the following consonant. Since the /b/ is a labial, the n > m. So, we have 'en-tail' and 'en-thrall', but 'em-power' and 'em-bellish.' Therefore: en-biggen > em-biggen.

  29. Matt Pearson said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    Rick, I think there's a reason for your hesitation about "enlittlen" being a possible word of English. As far as I recall, the "-en" suffix that forms verbs meaning "cause to become X" works best with roots ending in stop and fricative sounds, and worst with words ending in sonorant sounds like "l". So "whiten", "blacken", and "redden" are all fine, but "greenen", "yellowen" and "bluen" are hopeless. Likewise "strengthen" and "weaken" are both fine, but whereas "shorten" is acceptable, "tallen" is not. If I'm right about the generalization, then I would predict that "ensmallen" should have a short shelf life.

    For what it's worth, I've only ever heard "embiggen" used with the meaning "click on a picture file to increase its size"–making it rather more specialized than "enlarge".

  30. Matt Pearson said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 2:58 am

    Oops, I meant an *additional* reason, besides the fact that the stem in "enlittlen" is two syllables long.

  31. Kevin Iga said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 3:18 am

    Ah. That phonological rule explains "shorten" and "lengthen" but not *"longen" (which would have more consistently turned the adjective into a verb). Also "shorten" and "heighten" but not *"highen". "Weaken" and "Strengthen" but not *"strongen".

    There's also the fact that "enbiggen" has the prefix en- as well as the suffix -en, both of which have roughly the same effect. The only example I can think of that uses both is "enlighten". I wonder if the sort of redundancy makes it seem more absurd as a word?

  32. groki said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 3:45 am

    @Kevin Iga: Apparently "embiggen" was independently coined in 1884

    the 1884 embiggen occurs in a periodical that Google Docs describes as "a sort of 19th Century Wikipedia, in which anyone could contribute in a weekly published paper on a wide range of topics." I'd say it also served as a hardcopy proto-blog. in fact, since many of the discussions carried out in its pages involved language, it might even be considered one of LL's intellectual ancestors.

    the periodical was Notes and Queries, subtitled (in 1884 at least) A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. it began in 1849 and nowadays is published by Oxford University Press. the embiggen coinage was by C. A. Ward in a reply he contributed entitled "New Verbs," which is on page 135 of Google's scan of a book with issues from Jul-Dec, 1884.

    Mr Ward would have fit right in here, soothing the peeves of others and dispensing descriptivist advice. he ends his note with the coinage of embiggen to translate a word in Acts 5:13 in Greek (his italics, my bold):

    Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? ἀλλ' ἐμεγάλυνεν αὐτοὺς ὁ λαός, 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.

    (by the way, in Google Translate's (modern) Greek to English, ἐμεγάλυνεν comes out even more barbarous: emegalynen.)

    @Leo: So in The Simpsons, it means something like "ennoble" or "dignify".

    which, as it happens, looks pretty close to C. A. Ward's original.

  33. groki said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 4:11 am

    oops: I mistakenly credited "Google's scan of a book" above, but instead the Notes and Queries scan is part of the Internet Archive.

  34. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    The Economist's style preferences are odd. On the one hand it seems to revel in neologisms, on the other it's really pompous about grammar – in particular, some of its contortions to avoid splitting infinitives are painful. I guess that mirrors its politics – pro-innovation but somewhat in thrall to eighteenth-century orthodoxies…

  35. Army1987 said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 10:32 am

    I had read this word before and I would have never suspected it was such a recent coinage.

  36. corey b said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    There is quite a lot of subtle dry British irony and "humour" in the Economist. However It took me (as an obtuse North American) about 6 years of reading to start getting it. I see it pretty regularly now :)

  37. RandySavage said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    California is on the precipiece of legalizing weed (despite the obvious problems with it: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2010/09/30/will-prop-19s-legalization-of-marijuana-lead-to-californias-downfall/ ), and embiggens finally enters the American mainstream lexicon. It's official, the stoners have finally taken over. Welcome to the new baby boomers.

  38. JimG said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    Thanks, Army1987. You've set up (!) my thought that the Economist's use may be considered as debasing the coinage.
    /pun mode off

  39. KCinDC said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    For words having redundant "en-" plus "-en", besides enlighten there are embolden and enliven. My /usr/share/dict/words also has some rarer ones (not sure the meanings of all fit):

  40. Matt said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 10:14 pm

    Wait… does Matt Pearson's comment above actually define the quality of cromulence?

  41. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 11:22 am

    Wasn't it Winston Shakespeare who said: 'Embiggen is a word up with which I will not put at the end of a sentence'?

  42. Anna Phor said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Matt at 10:14–I think Matt Pearson's comment is defining well-formedness. Which to my mind isn't the same as cromulence. A word is cromulent if, when someone asks of it, "is that a word?" the answer is "yes."

  43. R. Lian Foster said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Does embiggen bear any of the salutary traits of engorgen?

  44. Will said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 8:05 pm

    Leo said, "I call those people coinlexers."
    I call them lexicorns.

  45. JFM said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

    Leo said, "I call those people coinlexers."Will responded "I call them lexicorns."

    Talking of which…

    Why are killjoys called "killjoys" and not "joykillers"? Is there an identifiable reason for that?

  46. Pflaumbaum said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    Well, it's one way to form a compound in English, as in 'spoilsport', 'pickpocket' etc.

    I don't see why 'joykillers' would be more 'reasonable', though I'd guess that noun-noun is a more productive compound form than verb-noun in modern English.

  47. JFM said,

    October 4, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    I suppose you're right. The "joykiller" format just sounds more, um, expected to my non-native ears.

  48. Craig said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 3:14 am

    I would just point out that the word is used not in an Economist article, but in the “Correspondent’s Diary” which is essentially a blog with a different author and topic each week. The Correspondent's Diary is intended to be much more informal and allows the author to break The Economist's rule against including self identifying information. I think its likely The Economist articles editors would not be so understanding of “embiggen” in the articles for publication.

  49. tpr said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    When my girlfriend and I were studying syntax, we used to take it in turns to forget what 'unaccusative' meant. Thanks for your contribution to our romance. ;)

  50. AnWulf said,

    August 2, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    There is the middle English verb of biggen … so why not embiggen rather than the Latin based enlarge?

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