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From the November issue of Mental Floss (not online yet), under the title "The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 25 Years":

You don't need to turn on the TV to hear The Simpsons. Just chat with pretty much anyone. As University of Pennsylvania linguistic professor Mark Liberman wrote in 2005, "The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture's greatest source of idioms, catchphrases, and sundry other textual allusions."

Liberman's assertion sounds crazy — at least until you remember there's a Millhouse quote for every occasion, Even the hulking gatekeeper fo the language, the Oxford English Dictionary, has found a spot fo Homer Simpson's "D'oh!". Mmmmm … linguistic acceptance.

The source of the cited quotation is "Homeric objects of desire", 1/7/2005, though I floated the same idea, with an indistinct attribution to someone else ("I've been told that…"), in "The A-er the B, the C-er the D", 3/19/2004.

The quote was picked up by the (London) Times in August of 2007 (Ben Macintyre, "Any word that embiggens the vocabulary is cromulent with me", 8/11/2007), whence I ganked the picture of Homer as W.S.'s tongue. As I noted at the time ("The Bard of Springfield", 8/11/2007),

…now that it's too late, I'm asking myself, in my intermittently positivist sort of way, is it true?

In the intervening five years, I haven't invested the time needed to check this, so I guess my current position is that it's "too good to check".

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. krogerfoot said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 2:38 am

    I have trouble believing "meh" originated with The Simpsons. I remember similar claims made for "yada yada yada" and Seinfeld, though definitely not by any New Yorker.

    Well, I hope the article is not claiming that "Thank you come again" somehow sprang from that fertile ground. Why would that even be included?

    But anyway, I agree with your conclusion – too good to check.

  2. Rachel said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 2:46 am

    People are crediting new coinages to the Simpsons? That's unpossible.

  3. Jason said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 3:03 am

    "Me grammar bad? That's unpossible!" Best. Simpson's quote. Ever.

  4. Teemu said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 3:11 am

    I, for one, welcome our new cartoon-originated catchphrase overlords.

    And it's not about where the coinages originated from, but what cultural institution made them as popular as they are now.

  5. Jon Hanna said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 3:52 am

    Yes, of the five quoted there, three derive their humour precisely because they are clichés for the sort of character speaking ("Meh" for young people, "Thank you, come again" for immigrant store-keepers and the snowclone "Worse. X. Ever." for nerdy fan-boys). The second made its way into general use through the Simpsons, but the language of young people and fan-boys gets propagated well enough on its own (what the Simpsons didn't do, LOL-Cats surely would). The whole joke is that it's impossible to stamp out such phrases, despite how one might object to the apathy behind one, and the knee-jerk hyperbole of the other.

    The snowclone "Mmmmm. X" can probably be found elsewhere and earlier, but it's reasonable enough to add.

    "Embiggen" is of course a joke about coinages becoming accepted into the language. Delightfully meta (if I may use such an over-used coinage to multiply the effect), but I'm not sure if that argues for or against.

  6. Bill Benzon said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    The "overlords" phrase got 1940 hits when you Googled it in 2004, Mark. I just clocked it at 1.2M.

  7. Adrian said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 9:12 am

    "The "overlords" phrase got 1940 hits when you Googled it in 2004, Mark. I just clocked it at 1.2M."

    Google says 1.4M to me. As is usually the case with these things though, when you page through, Google only shows 530 examples.

    The truth must lie somewhere between the two figures. Since Mark is a relatively important figure in the blogosphere, and a very important figure in the linguasphere, perhaps Google could be persuaded to have a little chat with him to get to the bottom of the vagaries of The Google Hitcount. It's potentially such a useful tool, and so many people use it already as though it's a precision instrument, it would be nice, finally, to know what level of accuracy Google claims for these figures, and whether it intends to improve their logic and consistency anytime soon.

  8. D-AW said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    The OED didn't find a spot for Homer Simpson's d'oh. It found a spot for the d'ohs (sv doh) of Kavanagh, Buckeridge, Beano, Chicago Tribune, HP Professional, Fein, and Jones, but not The Simpsons. I admit I'm a bit surprised by this, but it's not the first time I've been victim of the recency illusion. On the other hand, would the word have been included (in 2001) if it hadn't been for The Simpsons? Hard to know, maybe. I note on the wiki that d'oh is a sound trademark owned by Fox.

  9. Eorr said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    Me fail English? That's unpossible!

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    I've written about the Simpsonian role in popularizing (not originating) meh here. And I have a bit on the Overlord Meme here.

  11. mollymooly said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    @D-AW: IIRC, OED does mention the Simpsons in the etymology of "doh" [sic]. It's not in the quotations section since the scripts usually read "[annoyed grunt]" rather than "d'oh" (though some episode titles use "d'oh" in puns; e.g. "D'oh-in in the Wind").

  12. D-AW said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    D'oh. Why doesn't OED3 default to "full entry" (and how come I keep forgetting that it doesn't)? Makes for a neat case study for current OED practice.

  13. Nathan said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    @Jason: Sorry, it's "Me fail English? That's unpossible!"

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    I watched only three or four episodes of The Simpsons, when the show first began to air and before "d'oh" was introduced. When I began to hear the "word" quite often, mostly from younger people, I assumed they were saying "duh" and I wondered why this catch phrase had suddenly returned to popularity. Until I saw this post, I had no idea that it was revived by The Simpsons.

    In the late '40s and early '50s, "duh" was commonly used by me and my coevals to indicate stupidity. It came from the radio, from Mortimer Snerd and Clifton Finnegan. The former, of course, was Edgar Bergen's not-very-bright dummy and the latter was an barfly, whose intelligence was about on a par with Mortimer's, on Duffy's Tavern. Both of them often began sentences with "Duh."

  15. MattF said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    The D'ohs of Homer:

  16. Plane said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

    Google hit counts have never been accurate. Take it as within 6 orders of magnitude, and you'll be right most of the time.

  17. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 4:41 pm

    Just a little FYI re/ the etymology of the Homer Simpson retort, "D'oh!

    If you go to native Irishman, Stan Carey's engaging "Sentence first" language blog and check out his Sept. 9th, 2012 article entry– "Link love: language (46)", a potpourri of then-recent language-usage-related articles that tickled his fancy, the very last entry is a piece on voice-actor Dan Castellaneta explicating the origin of Homer Simpson's signature, "D'oh!".

    There's an accompanying video attachment with Castellaneta, the voice of Homer for some 20-plus seasons of the show, giving us a brief lowdown on the 'd'oh-down'.

    It's worth a gander.

  18. Bloix said,

    October 12, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

    There's a new play that did fairly well here in DC called "Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play." The premise is that the world has been devastated by widespread meltdowns of nuclear plants. The few remaining pockets of humans maintain their link with their destroyed civilization by telling each other Simpsons plots. As they slowly rebuild, acting companies begin to form to perform half-remembered episodes. It was actually pretty interesting – the Simpsons as the source of all cultural memory.

  19. Dan M. said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 4:47 am

    For anybody who's been alive some time since the 1990s and knows how to use hyperlinks, here's what Alex McCrae is referring to:

  20. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

    @Dan M.,


    'Tis a cryin' shame everyone isn't as Internet-savvy as you apparently are.

    But thanks for the YouTube link, nonetheless.

  21. Sili said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    People are crediting new coinages to the Simpsons? That's unpossible.

    Well, it's not like anyone knows who Oscar Wilde was anymore.

    In the intervening five years, I haven't invested the time needed to check this, so I guess my current position is that it's "too good to check".

    Like all foma.

  22. Andrew said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 8:11 pm

    @Nathan "@Jason: Sorry, it's "Me fail English? That's unpossible!""

    And it was Ralph that said it

  23. jhh said,

    October 13, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

    Yiddish speakers: Doesn't the word "meh" show up in the 1937 movie "The Dybbuk"? As I recall, a rebbe says it three times in a row to someone as a single-word interjection, and it seems to have the meaning we attach to the word now.

    That was *my* impression, but I would trust it more if someone who knows Yiddish agreed ;)

  24. J. Goard said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    @Ralph Hickok:

    You seem a bit confused about Duh! and Doh!, which are very different interjections. As you describe, the former used to be used primarily to convey that the speaker was stupid — I'd be more likely to convey this today with something like Durrrrrrr… — but its predominant use at present is to (rudely) convey the obviousness of the preceding comment. Doh!, on the other hand, expresses frustration, a kind of "why does this always happen to me?" sentiment, as you can see in the Homer clips.

  25. Chandra said,

    October 15, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    Interesting topic – and entertaining comments – but I find myself distracted by the two identical typos for two different common function words in the same sentence, in that quote from Mental Floss: "Even the hulking gatekeeper fo the language, the Oxford English Dictionary, has found a spot fo Homer Simpson's "D'oh!"."

    Is this an example of an Autocorrect incorrect overcorrection? One typo influencing the other? Both typos anticipating Homer's exclamation? I'm fascinated!

  26. Tristan Miller said,

    October 30, 2012 @ 5:25 am

    @Ralph Hickok:

    It's not possible for you to have watched "three or four episodes of The Simpsons, when the show first began to air and before 'd'oh' was introduced", because "d'oh" was introduced in the series premiere. Indeed, the catchphrase had been used occasionally in the Tracey Ullman Show shorts which ran before the Simpsons even got their own show.

  27. How to get "D'oh!" and "Bullshit" into the OED | Poetry & Contingency said,

    July 1, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    […] similar set of second-hand evidence occurs in the entry for doh, of Simpsons fame (also discussed at LL, among other Simpsons popularizations, such as meh and LL-approved embiggen). OED added doh in 2001, with quotations starting in about 1945. Four of these are post-Simpsons, […]

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