The cromulent word

I shall probably never summer at the Vineyard or winter at Palm Beach, or do whatever season one does at Biarritz. But there are some pleasures that are still accessible to the chronically underfunded, and a few, thanks to ebooks and the Internet, that are more accessible than ever. One of these is the pleasure of being polybiblious. This is not a word you will find in the dictionaries, but it has a certain amount of currency online; it means, of course, the habit of reading more than one book at a time.

I have been polybiblious, perhaps, about since the time my father gave me my second book. I am very hard on books; I have a way of breaking the spines, thanks to my habit of generally leaving four or five of them lying about on various surfaces, with the spine up to keep them from shutting and losing my place. (Bookmarks have never been my friends. Give me a million bookmarks today, and by tomorrow week I will have lost every one of them and be marking my places with pencils or paper towels.) People who read only one book at a time, generally speaking, don’t leave their books lying open for days on end, and I suspect they are rather apt to wonder how my books wear out so quickly.

But there are compensations. No monobiblist can ever know the polybiblious delight of seeing two incongruously different texts collide in a brilliant shower of new ideas. You can learn, not twice, but ten times as much by reading two good books concurrently than by reading each one straight through in turn. The texts themselves will conduct a lively argument in your head, which may lead you to conclusions that neither author ever dreamed of.

One of the books I have on the go at the moment is How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters, by the indefatigably right-wing British politician, Daniel Hannan. Hannan makes some good points, and some questionable ones, about the particularly English heritage of law and liberty. He is quite right, I think, to stress the importance of the idea, inherent in English common law, that anything not explicitly forbidden is permitted. In contrast to this, he writes about his experiences with the Eurocrats in Brussels, who seem to have the idea that any new activity is illegal until some official writes a set of regulations for it. This is good stuff, and makes one rather more sympathetic to the late Douglas Adams. In the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the radio series), Adams informed us that of all the curse words in all the languages of our galaxy, the most obscene is ‘Belgium’.

On the other hand, Hannan makes, I think, too much of the specifically Protestant contribution to liberty. The English common law, the English Parliament, and the English jury system all flourished in the fourteenth century, when England was still a Catholic country. But the most important institution in the whole framework of English liberty, I believe, goes back to the almost unrecorded twilight of the seventh century. That is the English language itself. For English is a common-law language.

When Dr. Samuel Johnson set out to compile his English dictionary, he did most of the work by himself in a span of three years. His friend Dr. Adams found this remarkable, when the French dictionary of the Académie Française had taken forty Academicians forty years to write. Johnson replied: ‘Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.’ In truth, 3 to 1,600 is the proportion of a free man to a man who must wait upon official permission. It took the whole massive prestige of the Académie to be allowed to publish a French dictionary; and then the process was crippled by committees and disputes and bureaucratic rulings, all designed to make certain that the reputation of the King and his Government should not suffer, and that no lily-livered functionary should ever find his career in jeopardy for having rashly given the nihil obstat. Bureaucracy is the sovereign cure for rashness; it is almost as effective as death.

In England, nobody needed an imprimatur or a nihil obstat, nobody even needed a royal printer’s licence – these legal requirements having been abolished a few years before Johnson was born. A man could be as rash as he pleased, subject only to the laws against libel and obscenity; and those laws operated, for the most part, only on books already published. An English censor, to muddle a metaphor, could only skin the cat after the cat was out of the bag. Books could be suppressed but not prevented. So Dr. Johnson, who was a genius, could write his dictionary in three years, on nobody’s authority but his own. A fool could have written a dictionary in three years, and everybody would have laughed at it, nobody would have used it, and that would have been an end of the matter. In France, a dictionary had to be accepted by the State; in England, it was accepted by the democracy of the reading public.

Since there is no central authority dictating what is or is not a proper English dictionary, there is no authority passing judgement on English words. The only judgement possible is that of the common law, of stare decisis: once a word (or a legal precedent) has been allowed to stand and remain in use for a time, it is enshrined as part of the rich fabric of English society, and while it may one day fall out of use and be regarded as a dead letter, it can never be unwritten or repealed. From time to time, a Blackstone or Burke will write lucid and logical commentaries on the law, suggesting that the body of precedents ought to be interpreted this way or that; and if the public finds his case compelling, his ideas may be added to the common-law tradition. Just so, a Johnson, or an H. W. Fowler, or a William Safire, may contribute something to the standards of English usage, not because he has been appointed as an Authority, but because the English-speaking nations choose to accept him as authoritative.

Every language has this quality to some degree; words are nearly always invented by the people on the spot who need to use them, not by a committee of lexicographers appointed from on high. The lexicographers pointed out that television, for instance, was what Fowler calls a ‘barbarism’ – one element Greek, the other Latin; whereas the accepted thing, among those with enough learning to know it, is to make compounds that are all Greek or all Latin. But the all-Greek compound telescope was already in use for something else; and besides, the men who invented television did not care a fig for Latin, or Greek, or all the lexicographers in Oxford. They rushed in where angels feared to tread, and staked their claim. The word they coined is with us yet, and not one in a thousand of the people who use it daily ever stop to think that it is the child of an irregular union. And télévision is just as much a French word as the unaccented version is English; it has been hallowed by the Académie; it has been imprimatured and nihil-obstatted, and somehow it survives in spite of its official success.

In fact, the reason that the learned men used to prefer all-Greek compound words is that the Greek language itself, back in its heyday, was every bit as adaptable as English. Much of the classical Greek vocabulary goes back to Proto-Indo-European, and was Greek from the moment that there first began to be Greeks. But some of it comes from Phoenician, or Egyptian, or Persian, or even Hebrew; some from the languages of the pale barbarians to the north; some from unknown sources. Some of the words were simply made up. The only Greek I know is brekekex koax koax. Aristophanes was a genius, and popular besides: he had the clout to make those frog-noises ‘take’, and not the stuffiest grammarian in Athens could deny that those words are truly and properly Greek. Once the archaizers and the professors got hold of Greek, they decided that any word added after about 300 BC was beyond the pale, and that only the pure Attic dialect of Sophocles and Plato was real Greek. From that moment, Classical Greek became a dead language, even though Greek is the living mother tongue of millions today. It was the same impulse that created the Académies of Europe: the impulse to fix and formulate, to embalm the living language and turn it into a static museum-piece.

(You can see the same process at work in the law. Roman law, which is supposed to be rigid and fixed and dogmatic, dictated de haut en bas by the awesome power of Justinian’s Code, really ought to be called Byzantine law; for Rome itself had fallen before the Code was compiled. If you look at the laws of the actual Romans, the men of Rome, seat of the republic and empire, you will find a wonderful muddle of cobbled-together statutes, contradictory edicts, and masses and masses of case law. In fact, it bears a charming resemblance to English common law. It only ceased to be ‘common’ when it was codified: in other words, when it was dead. Scarcely fifty years after Justinian died, Byzantium was swamped by invading Persians and Arabs, and almost perished. Most of the complex apparatus of the Code was quietly scrapped; only a highly simplified selection of the laws remained in force, translated into mediaeval Greek for the benefit of the rough and ready military men who governed the surviving fragment of the empire. Justinian’s laws were only definitive because they never had time to live and grow.)

In the English-speaking world, as formerly in republican Rome, any judge, any magistrate, any legislative body, almost any jury, can add something to the rococo edifice of the law. Likewise, in the English-speaking world, as formerly in Greece, any writer, any inventor or scientist, any adolescent girl with a clique, can add to the language; and it then becomes the dictionaries’ job to find it out. Yesterday, in one of my breaks from Daniel Hannan, I happened to use an odd word in a conversation, and it occurred to me to look it up and see where it came from; and it is a beautiful example of common-law language at work.

The word is gibbled. If you have never heard it before, it is pronounced with a hard G, and it means roughly ‘injured, damaged, or just very badly made’. You can try to walk on a gibbled ankle, or read gibbled files on a computer disk; you can even write a gibbled essay, as the present example very likely shows. This word is fairly widely used, especially among younger people, in Western Canada; almost unknown everywhere else. You can read its peculiar history in a newspaper article, ‘Gibbled: another prairie contribution to English’. Or, if you want the short version, I can give it to you here:

The word originated at the Lilydale chicken processing plant in Wynyard, Saskatchewan, east of Saskatoon. Some time in the late 1960s, the plant hired a woman with a very common problem: she had seen a lot of words in print that she had never heard pronounced, and tried to guess what they sounded like. (Approximately 90% of English speakers have this trouble. The rest don’t read.) In particular, she had the idea that giblets was pronounced with a hard G. She could well have been right. We are taught at school that G is soft before E or I, but in fact, the commonest English words beginning with gi have a hard G. You can give a gift to a giddy girl, if you please; but if you soften the G’s, and jiv a jift to a jiddy jirl, people are liable to find you peculiar. This woman (whose name has not been unearthed by Science as yet) made a guess which was perfectly reasonable and perfectly wrong. Of course her coworkers made fun of her for it. The genius of the story, Leon Bjarnason, said: ‘If you had giblets’ (with a hard G), ‘you’d be gibbled!’ And so a word was born. And because it was born to make fun of an error, it was instantly applied to erroneous, wonky, or just plain broken things of all kinds.

It is here that the two texts collide, Hannan’s book and the Saskatoon news story, and the ideas begin to flow: for now the common law of English goes to work. When Robin Burlingham, a linguistics student from Saskatchewan, had traced the word back to its origins, she quite naturally wanted to know why this fine Canadian word was not in the Oxford Canadian Dictionary. And so she asked, and she was answered in the finest common-law style:

A senior lexicographer explained that they simply had not encountered the word and graciously invited her to submit her examples. This she did, eliciting a promise that ‘gibbled’ would definitely be considered for the dictionary’s next edition.

The Forty Immortals of the Académie, if someone had sent them such a word caught in the wild in Picardy or Poitou, would probably have curled their upper lips and spat: ‘Cela n’est pas français!’ And that would have been the end of it; except that when the word passed into everyday use despite their curled lips, they would have labelled it as slang, and appointed a committee of shiny-bottomed Under Deputy Vice-Commissioners of the French Language to invent an officially approved substitute. And there would be forty men on the committee, and they would take forty years to make their report and invent their word, just as in the palmy days of Dr. Johnson.

One of the more fertile sources of new English words in the past generation has been The Simpsons, the animated fever dream of Fox TV. Everybody knows (for certain values of ‘everybody’) how the show popularized a rare word and invented a new one in a single immortal joke. An inscription reads:

A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man. —Jebediah Springfield

Two of the teachers at Springfield Elementary spring the joke:

Edna Krabappel: ‘Embiggens’? I never heard that word before I came to Springfield.

Miss Hoover: I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.

Embiggens was a rare but real word before The Simpsons got hold of it, and it is real but rare today. Cromulent was a new coinage, and the Anglosphere has taken it to its bosom. The word is an interesting example of that class sometimes called contronyms: words with two diametrically opposed meanings (such as fast, which can mean ‘stuck firmly in one place’ or ‘moving very quickly’). Sometimes people use cromulent the way Miss Hoover evidently did, to mean ‘valid’ or ‘acceptable’. But it is also used ironically, to mean something like, ‘completely bogus, but nevertheless widely used’. Now that it has wormed its way into some of our common-law dictionaries, we can say that cromulent is a cromulent word in both of its own meanings.

Some contronyms acquire their opposite meanings because they are really two words, etymologically unrelated, that happen to be exact homonyms. But in some cases, they share a root meaning, not necessarily obvious, that makes the opposite usages understandable, if not convenient. Sanction is such a word. It can mean either to authorize or to forbid. You could even use the word both ways in the same sentence, with some hope of being understood, and a fair certainty of being laughed at. One can just about imagine a U.N. bureaucrat saying, ‘We sanction the use of force to enforce our sanctions.’ But whichever way it is used, it comes from the Latin sancire, ‘to ratify’. A sanction (of either kind) is something approved and ratified by a Higher Authority: such as the Académie Française, which sanctions the use of some French words and imposes its sanction against others. Waiting about for someone’s sanction, yea or nay, is a very un-English thing to do; and so English goes ahead on nobody’s authority, and is a language of cromulent words. Long may it be embiggened.

Comments

  1. Oh, that is so lovely. It’s refreshing to the mind to read something well-written. And cromulent.

  2. Lovely essay!

  3. I was basically in tears at the end. Hilarious and spit-polished to a tee.

  4. Funny thing, the built in dictionary defines “cromulent” but not “embiggen,” and neither are in the spell check.

    Speaking of mas movement language stuff. 😀

  5. Very fine! Thanks for this.

  6. Brian thies says:

    When you wrote “English is a common law language” I had this vision of unmarried words living together until they became official by default.

  7. Xavier says:

    Tom

    But in fairness to the Europeans having the various lanuguage academies is that language debtes are public and quite passionate. In fact, such arguements have allowed more resistence to the corruption of politically correct language. In fact, the leading Catalan linguist and teacher of the language has characatrized such language as utterly stupid and shows a profound lack of respect for the languague. It’s not for messages(tm) but to comminicate.

    It was very refreshing to hear her genuine disgust and her humourous disdain for politically correct language that’s obsessed with virtue signlling

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