Words are like coffee mugs. Interesting enough, but ultimately vessels for something more potent and mind-altering. Words are the vase, meaning is the flower. Words contain concepts, sometimes loosely, the way a fishing net contains a wriggling salmon. But just because you’re holding the net, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re eating sashimi tonight.
What I mean is that words are different from their meanings. The word “mug”, for example, isn’t itself a a mug. And the word “coffee” isn’t a hot brown liquid. They are representations of other things.
I know, this sounds so obvious. So let’s take a quick break to look at a painting from 1929.
This is The Treachery of Images painted by Rene Magritte, a surrealist. Translated from French, the five words at the bottom of this painting read:
This is not a pipe
The first time I saw this, I was a little confused. How is this not a pipe? You could hardly fault anyone for pointing to this painting and saying “see this pipe?” But it’s not a pipe. It’s a picture of a pipe.
There’s are many differences between a “pipe” and a “picture of a pipe.” Here’s one of those key differences presented in tabular format:
|Picture of a pipe
|You can smoke with it
|You can’t smoke with it
You’re thinking this conversation is getting pretty semantic. And I wouldn’t disagree:
When you take a magnifying glass to words, things get weird.
For example, there is a type of word called an autological word. Words (as we have discussed) are representations of other things. But they can also represent other words and sometimes they describe themselves. When a word describes itself, we call it autological. A word that isn’t autological is heterological.
Some examples should clear this up:
|noun is a noun
|adverb is a noun (so it doesn’t describe itself)
|word is a word
|sentence is not a sentence
|English is a word in English
|French is not in French
|unhyphenated is unhyphenated
|hyphenated is not hyphenated
|readable is itself readable
|unreadable is… I mean you just read it
Some examples are quite clever:
While other examples are debatable:
My favorite autological term is completely fabricated and highly recursive:
The word cromulent was introduced on the long-running animated show The Simpsons, in an episode called “Lisa the Iconoclast.”
We hear it after a teacher questions the use of the term “embiggen” in an old educational video. (Embiggen is a real word by the way.) Another teacher responds, “It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”
In writing this joke, the writers needed a term that, a), that sounded like a real English word and, b), conveyed “reasonable” or “acceptable,” while c), also felt slippery enough that audiences would know it was counterfeit.
I think the writers nailed it.
Cromulent is crucially unlike the True Words I described at the beginning of this post. It doesn’t point to anything but itself. It exists only to draw attention to itself. It’s both the content and the container. It is the most cromulent word; the utmost example of cromulence.