A noble heart embiggens the smallest planet

Mars, as seen by the Curiosity rover. Click, need I say, to embiggen. Photo: Nasa

A few months ago a reader, Victoria Edge, wrote a letter to the Telegraph saying: “As the arrow on my computer hovered over a picture, the instruction ‘click to embiggen’ appeared. What endless possibilities the English language has.” Ms Edge, I absolutely agree.

It’s on my mind because I happened to be wandering idly around the internet myself a few minutes ago, over on Discover Magazine’s excellent Bad Astronomy site, looking at the absolutely breathtaking images that the Curiosity rover is sending back from Mars: the place looks pretty much like the badlands of North Dakota, or one of those other amazing, barren, windswept semi-deserts in America or Australia. It’s all sloping strata and eroded peaks; you can almost see a billion years of Martian wind blowing across it.

Now I’ve written that, I realise “Martian wind” sounds a bit like some space traveller’s stomach bug, which isn’t quite the epic-awe-at-the-glories-of-creation tone I was going for, but anyway. The point I was making was that underneath one of the pictures, it says the magic words: “Click to embiggen”.

I don’t know if Ms Edge was aware of the etymology of “embiggen”. Its first known use was in Lisa the Iconoclast, Series 3, Episode 13 of The Simpsons, first broadcast in 1996: it forms part of the motto of the town of Springfield, which runs in full: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. It is, as an internet-prehistoric (February 1999) blog post in Linguist List says, “a construct of the ‘enlighten’ variety”, taking an adjective as its stem and adding a prefix and suffix which mean “to cause to be”, and means, as would be immediately clear to any native English speaker in context, “to make larger”.

Another picture on the Bad Astronomy Mars post has next to it: “Click to barsoomenate”. That one was new to me, but I’ve Googled it and found it used in the context of “display larger version of this picture” on as weighty an authority as Language Log, so I think that’s a neologism that’s sticking. I think it works because the middle syllable sounds like “zoom”. It’s a reference, I think, to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 novel A Princess of Mars, in which an American soldier finds himself transported to the red planet, the inhabitants of which know it as “Barsoom”. Why that’s become a stem for a verb meaning “make larger on screen” I don’t know, but if anyone does I’d love to hear it.

The internet is a wonderful breeding-ground for new words, because they can spread so fast and so far – but all it’s done is speed up a process which, obviously, has driven the evolution of language for as long as language has existed. Steven Pinker was very taken with the word “frob”, meaning “to adjust with large uncontrolled movements”, used by computer engineers in the 1980s and 1990s, although it seems to have fallen out of favour these days. The word “neologism” itself was once a neologism, first recorded in the sense of “the practice of innovation in language” in 1776, and meaning “new word or expression” from 1803.

I like to remember these little things, these fun little word-innovations. I am particularly fond of the verb “to text”, which the Online Etymology Dictionary records from 2005 but I’m sure my friends and I were using in 1999, and the verb “to verb”, meaning to turn a noun into a verb, which is an example of its own definition. I remind myself of them when I get downhearted at the apparent loss of, say, “disinterested” to mean “impartial”. (Although I was a bit startled to find recently that its sense of “not interested” is actually older, from 1610.) There are two processes going on in language at all times: words and meanings changing, merging or being allowed to fall fallow, while at the same time new words are being created as they are needed. I picture it rather like the tectonic process that simultaneously churns out and devours continental plates; there’s always enough crust to cover the planet, and there’s always enough words in the language to say what needs saying.

That said, I wish I’d known about “barsoomenate” a few days ago when I was using boring old “click to enlarge” on this post about space.


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