The language of Seinfeld
Unarguably one of the most influential TV shows of all time, Seinfeld played a major role in shaping the social culture of the ‘90s. Famously self-defined as a “show about nothing,” Seinfeld’s insistent concern with the mundane often manifested itself as an obsession with the ultimate, universally-relatable everyday practice: language.
Since the show had no wacky, large events, much of the humor derived from the creation, perversion, and manipulation of everyday speech. Some of this comes in the palatable form of catchphrases, a trope common to the sitcom, such as “no soup for you!” or “yada yada yada”. But Seinfeld transcended sitcom tropery, moving beyond phrasal repetition to more sophisticated language manipulation and creation. Many episodes hinge on creative euphemisms which have subsequently become accepted slang, such as being “master of one’s domain,” “changing teams,” “playing with confederate money”. Others revel in the humorous inconsistency and mutability of English, riffing on back-formations (the creation of a new word by the removal or addition of supposed affixes) and functional shifts (changing the part of speech of a word), for example:
MANAGER: I could use someone for the holidays.
KRAMER: Alright! Toss me an apron, let’s bagel!
JOE DIVOLA: I know what you said about me, Seinfeld. I know you badmouthed me to the execs at NBC, put the kibosh on my deal. Now I’m gonna put the kibosh on you. You know I’ve kiboshed before, and I will kibosh again.
There’s an example of this playful linguistic shifting, called denominalization or verbification, in almost every episode, but this practice is not unique to Seinfeld. “Easy conversion of nouns to verbs,” Steven Pinker wrote in his 1994 book The Language Instinct, “has been part of English grammar for centuries; it is one of the processes that make English English.” This syntactic shift is a shortcut born from over-repetition – because of the reiteration of the phrase ‘put the kibosh on’, Divola can compress the phrase’s meaning into the single word ‘kibosh’ – making it a perfect source of metahumor in the inherently repetitious format of the weekly sitcom. Many other sitcoms, such as Joss Whedon’s similarly self-conscious ‘90s TV comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer, thrive off this wordplay, but Seinfeld’s obsessive and repetitive stress on a language “about nothing” particularly brings out the mutability of colloquial English.
A lexicon of Seinfeld language
Although Seinfeld makes great use of catchphrase, euphemism, and morphological wordplay, the most enduring Seinfeldian vocabulary comes in the form of neologisms. Because most of the show’s humor derives from its constant attention to the petty social anxieties of everyday life, the writers concocted hundreds of new words and phrases to define these heretofore unexpressed minutiae. Below is a selection of the most enduring phrases and words popularized by Seinfeld. Although many of these words had prior meanings, the show gave them new meanings, or helped give them wider currency:
One who calls for silence via the onomatopoetic shhh sound, the recipient of such an exhortation being the shushee. Seinfeld also speaks of unshushables, people who continue making noise despite being shushed. Especially in a movie theater.
The space between two people requisite for comfortable interaction. This can come in the form of an intermediary person (in the episode “The Jacket,” Elaine begs Jerry to come to dinner with her estranged father: “I need a buffer. You know, I haven’t seen my father in a while and… you know”), or a space (in the episode “The Chinese Restaurant,” George bemoans the proximity between the bedroom and bathroom at his new girlfriend’s house: “Well, it’s this little place with this little bathroom…it’s like right there. It’s not even down a little hall, or off in an alcove, you understand? There’s no… buffer zone.”)
To dip a chip (or, in more general usage, any snack) after having already dipped and taken a bite of that same chip or snack item.
Adjectives appended to ‘talker’ denote an idiosyncratic and distinctive manner of speech. For example, Elaine’s boyfriend Aaron is close-talker, because he addresses people from an uncomfortably close distance. Other examples include high-talker, low-talker, and long-talker.
A male bimbo (that is, someone who is attractive but unintelligent). The similar blend himbo has recently overtaken this Seinfeldism, used to describe people including the swimmer Ryan Lochte and the male cast of the reality TV show Jersey Shore. However, mimbo is still a commonly recognized form. A 2010 Philadelpha Enquirer article called Bristol Palin’s onetime fiancée, Levi Johnston, a “Playgirl mimbo, a 2012 LA Times column characterized early Brad Pitt as “the mimbo who might stumble into a good role”, and (my personal favorite) a 2010 article in Features Magazine discussed rumors that John Mayer is “nothing but a mimbo trapped in a Sisyphean hamster wheel”.
To give an unwanted gift that one has received to someone else. This word is currently the only one of these Seinfeldisms to have an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. Although this entry has two quotations for this sense of regift as a verb before Seinfeld (from 1848 and 1944), the term most likely became more widespread following the Season 6 episode “The Label Maker”, even leading to the declaration of a US National Regifting Day in 2008.
A person prejudiced against dentists, particularly a person who distinguishes between dentists and other medical doctors.
Deemed a capable enough lover to warrant use of a limited supply of the discontinued contraceptive sponge. A 2005 issue of The Independent notices a more general meaning: “not just worth going to bed with, but worth using a sponge on. The phrase ‘spongeworthy’ became a synonym for ‘good in bed’”.
The inverted or opposite version of something. Derived from the eponymous fictional comic book character who has all the opposite qualities of Superman. Jerry ascribes this adjective to Elaine’s new group of friends, who he believes are the Bizarro versions of the Seinfeld gang.
An informal and unannounced visit. Although the verb ‘to pop in’ dates back to 1846, Seinfeld popularized the noun sense of the word, ‘a pop-in’. Even by 1993, only three years after the show’s first episode, an article in Rolling Stone magazine referred to “Krameresque pop-ins”.