IU professor looks at how ‘The Simpsons’ ’embiggened’ the English language

Guest post courtesy of IU Newsroom intern Emily Davis:

Indiana University English professor Michael Adams is a specialist on history, theory and the practice of lexicography. He considers himself a standard English speaker with an affinity for historical dictionaries.

He also appreciates the complex vocabulary of Homer Simpson.

Michael Adams

Michael Adams is a slang expert.

Adams recently published a blog post for Oxford Dictionaries titled “Embiggening English: ‘The Simpsons’ and changing language.” He focused on two ‘small but powerful’ words that have subliminally made their way into our vocabulary and defined two distinct attitudes towards life ­– d’oh and meh.

D’oh is an interjection of frustration, while he called meh “the verbal shrug of indifference.”

“A word like d’oh can be included in dictionaries because it is in wide use and is used in a variety of contexts,” Adams said. “If a word is just used in a television show the answer might be, don’t include it in the dictionary. But, if it gets out of that television show into other types of texts and then also into speech, then self-respecting comprehensive dictionaries ought to include that word.”

Scholar of slang

Adams is known for calling attention to changes in language and integrating slang’s social and linguistic values. The author of “Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon” and “Slang: The People’s Poetry” is currently working on a new book that will consider the functional uses of profanity in English. “In Praise of Profanity” will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

While he does not consider himself a “Simpsons” fanatic, he does pay homage to the influence the show has had on people’s lives during its 25 years on air. He said “The Simpsons” is a potent example of the influence that television has had on vocabulary.

In the blog, Adams said “The Simpsons” has “embiggened” – a word Homer Simpson uses instead of “enlarged” – the English language and allowed people to recognize how their own communication styles help shape their identity.

Expression through language

An old friend of Adams once told him people talk the way they do for a reason, and as scholars it is important to determine what those reasons are.

This has been a guiding principle in Adams’ career. He has studied how populations of people use invented words as a means of expressing themselves and improving language for their own purposes.

“We tend to think globally. We tend to think, ‘how many people in the American population overall use this word?’ But another question you could ask is, ‘how intensively do people who use the word use the word?'”

By understanding language, Adams said, we can begin to further understand the people around us.

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