Cromulence

Approximately ten years ago (give or take, actually finding an article about it is proving more trouble than I want to invest in this), Miriam-Webster made a few waves when it was announced that the word “cromulent” was going to be added to the Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary, defined as, “fine, acceptable.” This event occurred a decade after the word was first coined by The Simpsons in the episode, “Lisa the Iconoclast” in the following exchange:

MS. KRABAPPLE: “’Embiggens?’ Hm. I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.”

MS. HOOVER: “I don’t know why, it’s a perfectly cromulent word.”

The joke of course being that Ms. Hoover was using one nonexistent word to describe another nonexistent word. But with that brief exchange for a throw away gag in the first couple minutes of the show, two neologisms were birthed into the lexicon. Ten years later, the use of “cromulent” was more or less codified (doubtlessly over the objections of the self-appointed guardians of the language at the Oxford Press) into the English language.

And my mind fucking split in two.

This isn’t about me getting my knickers in a twist over alleged non-words being added to the dictionary. I’ve coined my fair share of them in the past (though really only the one ever rose to prominence). On the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist spectrum on the usage of language, I fall more on the side of the latter in all but the most egregious abuses and misuses. No, I absolutely don’t begrudge that “cromulent” attained any sort of formal recognition, but in this particular instance the ramifications of the act seem to be a singularly unique occurrence that may never be repeated.

By ascribing a definition to the word, it has retroactively made Ms. Hoover’s response to Edna a sensical statement, thus nullifying the joke.

To me, this was like Skynet succeeding in killing John Conner. Like Marty failing to ensure that his parents got together after he inadvertently sent them on divergent courses in history. This is a word where the entire point of it was to be devoid of any meaning in the service of a punch line, where it was so wildly successful that meaning was inferred from the context in which it was used, negating its own reason for its very existence in the first place. Words enter languages to fill needs not already being serviced, but “cromulent” has become something of a little verbal ouroboros and consumed its own purpose.

I recognize that I am probably alone in my fixation on this—I am reminded frequently of this fact by my long-suffering wife whenever I mention it—but we are living in a day where people who weren’t even born when the episode first aired are now eligible to vote. “Cromulent” has been out in the wild the entire while, it seems a statistical certainty that someone must have heard the term without knowing its origins and then seen the moment that spawned it during syndicated reruns, where it was nothing but an empty couplet of lines with the humor stripped out of them.

I’m not much of a prognosticator (mostly because I find that I am absolutely terrible at it), but the permanency of “cromulent” as a fixture of the English language seems tenuous at best—a Google search shows only about 166,000 results, and many of the top results are about how The Simpsons coined the word. The Simpsons, while demonstrating the sort of longevity that would typically be reserved for the God Emperor of Mankind ensconced on his Golden Throne, is no longer the cultural juggernaut it once was. As the line goes about dying a hero or living long enough to see yourself become the villain goes, it has usurped the establishment it once lampooned and became the substrate that pop culture filters down to rather than arises from. So with the decline of the relevance and visibility of the Simpsons, what will happen to its linguistic offspring? Can it be said that “cromulent” actually sees any use outside of people giving deliberate nods to the show?

And ultimately I know that the answers to these questions is really, “No one gives a shit.” Truth be told, not even I care overly much; I’m just driven to distraction by the singular nature of it all, The Joke That Was Then Wasn’t. But in the not-too-distant future, the use of “cromulent” will probably diminish to the point that it is no longer deemed worthy of inclusion in any dictionary, the natural order of things will be reinstated, and this will just be a hazy memory of a post nobody read on a blog that no one remembers.

Boo-urns.

–Mike