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Romy Oltuski | Word Up

Simpsons did it

Published: Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 07:03

Not a dedicated "South Park" fan, I often find myself standing idly by as my friends engage in the classic American pastime of quoting lines and jokes from the Comedy Central series, most of which I do not understand and, frankly, do not find funny. However, one friend recently mentioned (i.e. recited word for word) an episode that hit close to home.

In the episode, fourth−grader Butters — or rather his villainous alter−ego, Professor Chaos — is looking to stir up unrest in the town of South Park, Colo. and commits a series of unusual practical jokes and acts of vandalism, only to find each time that similar events had already appeared in earlier episodes of "The Simpsons."

In a sense, Butters is made to grapple with an inescapable dilemma of the post−modern world; where he thought he would find a boundless potential for originality, he instead finds finiteness and constriction.

How many times in our lives have we been proud of an essay, only to find that someone else has presented the same ideas, only better? How many times have we formed a student activist group to realize that there are three others at Tufts that do the exact same thing? How often have we composed a song that contains our heart's deepest emotion and then turned on the radio to hear Pachelbel, U2, Vitamin C and Aerosmith playing back our very chords? How many times have "The Simpsons" done it first?!

No one can escape it.

Recently a topic of considerable media coverage, the New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) voted "unfriend" the word of the year for 2009, generally a title given to "new'"words. In reality, it seems more appropriately the word of 1659.

The NOAD 2009 word of the year, defined as "to remove someone as a ‘friend' on a social networking site such as Facebook[.com]," dates back to 2007 in dictionary history. But, as Oxford University Press Senior Lexicographer Christine Lindberg pointed out after the word's big day, the dictionary definition of "unfriend" as a noun meaning something like "enemy" dates back to the late 17th century edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Some even say we have records of the word that reach back to the 13th century.

Or, in other words, "The Simpsons" did it already.

But even the Simpsons themselves are not impervious to the difficulty of innovation. Homer Simpson's "D'oh," for one, is not actually quite Homer Simpson's. While the show certainly led to the phrase's golden era of popularity, "d'oh" dates back to a 1945 radio script of the BBC comedy "It's That Man Again" (1939−1949).

"The man I marry must be affectionate and call me ‘Dear,'" Diana, one of the characters, says to Tom, another. "Oh, you're going to be a stag's wife," he answers. Her response? "D'oh," defined by the OED as an expression of frustration "at the realization that things have turned out badly…"

Clearly a recurring phenomenon, the human tendency to turn certain old words into new ones, or at the very least think of them that way, has been explained in several different terms. Linguist Arnold Zwicky dubbed it the "recency illusion;" columnist Ben Zimmer points out the many examples as the Rip van Winkles of the dictionary; Lindberg thinks of this year's word specifically as the "sleeping beauty of 2009."

It is worth noting, however, that each seems to stress a spirit of revival, not of creative damnation. Just as certain generations, far apart in time, share qualities that their children and parents do not, certain eras have a common need for a word that might fall out of vogue for several decades and later on, have a way of rising from the dead — a topic, incidentally, that "The Simpsons" have already done.

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Romy Oltuski is a junior majoring in English. She can be reached at Romy.Oltuski@tufts.edu.

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