Ay caramba! A look at some of the language of The Simpsons
19 April marks the anniversary of the first airing of The Simpsons on American television – on the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. Not the first episode mind, that wouldn’t appear until 1989. Fans of the show, of which there are many, might be dismayed to know that there are only 3 quotations from the show featured in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations. The Simpsons, though, is arguably the first serialized cartoon to permeate itself fully in popular consciousness, as made evident in its long run (over 500 episodes and counting) and wide array of celebrity guest appearances over the years. The show has proven to be inimitably quotable, with many characters’ catchphrases and expressions now culturally embedded.
Ay caramba, don’t have a cow!
The prepubescent terror Bart is responsible for quite a few of these, ‘Don’t have a cow’ being one example. Although this did not originate with The Simpsons, it’s unlikely that you’ll find anybody bringing up its prior utterances in 1980s film Sixteen Candles or Scooby Doo.
Likewise The Simpsons has popularized ‘ay caramba!’ as an expression of surprise. The term apparently originates from the nickname given to the popular 18th-century Spanish singer, Maria Antonia Fernandez. Although it’s Bart’s most used catchphrase, pointing out that he owes it to a 18th-century Spanish singer would likely earn you the instruction to ‘eat his shorts’ (on a side note; the only character known to have followed through with this request was one of Matt Groening’s other creations, Bender B Rodriguez, from Futurama – “mmm…shorts”).
Not to be outdone by his son, Homer Simpson’s own expression (closer to a grunt) of ‘d’oh’ has been has been included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Although there are earlier instances by non-Springfieldians (the current earliest citation for doh dates from a 1945 BBC radio script for the programme It’s That Man Again), Homer was responsible for popularizing it as an exclamation of frustration.
Its inclusion in The Simpsons however appears to be due to voice actor Dan Castellaneta’s interpretation of ‘annoyed grunt’ in early scripts for The Simpsons. Homer does on occasion adapt it depending on circumstance, such as when he is informed that he has constructed a barn rather than a swimming pool by a passing Amish man (‘tis a fine barn, but it’s no pool, English’) he exclaims ‘D’oheth!’ Homer might not realize it, but, linguistically speaking, that is an example of Homer’s adeptness at code-switching.
‘Me fail English? That’s unpossible!’
The Simpsons has, however, been on our screens for 26 years, and these are but early examples of its influence – it should be noted that as recently as 2007, upon the release of The Simpsons Movie, everybody (me) hummed Spider-Pig for an entire summer. The influence of The Simpsons has managed to spread beyond mere implantation of phrases, and has drawn in many heavyweights from the literary world as well as (loose) adaptations of classic texts.
Although the dopey policeman’s son Ralph Wiggum might find it ‘unpossible’ to fail at English, the scribes of The Simpsons are certainly up on their literature. (Interestingly, the OED currently dates unpossible to 1362, and it was a commonly used word between c.1400-1660.) One of the earliest examples of The Simpsons’ literary leanings is when Homer and Bart act out Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven (in Treehouse of Horror I) with Bart playing the role of the mocking Raven. Poe is used again in a far more meta fashion in the episode Lisa’s Rival where she hides a diorama of Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart under floorboards, just as the lead narrator of said tale does with a dismembered body. Other episodes have parodied everything from Virgil to Shakespeare, with the latter’s work being used for a memorable quotation from Bart Simpson’s best friend Milhouse Van Houten:
“We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but it ended up in tragedy.”
“Linguo dead?”…“Linguo is dead”
Of course, if one were to look to any character in The Simpsons for guidance in all things grammatical and linguistic, Lisa would be first choice. She’s competed in spelling bees and even invented her own grammar correcting robot, Linguo.
The heading above is the last grammatical correction Linguo ever made (directed at Homer) after he met an untimely demise due to having his circuits overloaded when confronted by the Springfield mafia:
“Shut up, your face”
Heaven knows many a grammar aficionado has come close to blowing a fuse due to similar frustrations with grammatical ineptitude. Poor Linguo.
So, the Simpson family may not all rank among the intelligentsia, and they certainly haven’t aged in any normal fashion over the past 26 years, but they’ve made their mark on the English language. Long may they continue to do so.