It’s official: Merriam-Webster has added embiggen to its dictionary.
If you’re not familiar with this highly cromulent word, it comes from The Simpsons, where it’s part of the town’s motto, “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” Like so many Simpsons references, it’s seeped its way into the real world over the (oh god) 22 years since the original episode aired—and, notably, into Ms. Marvel.
(In the interest of being thorough, Mental Floss notes that C. A. Ward once used the word in 1884, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on back then.)
So, does this mean embiggen is a real word now? Well, that depends on how you define “real.” Contrary to popular belief, dictionaries generally aren’t the all-powerful arbiters of what is and isn’t a legitimate word—they’re descriptive, meaning they document the way people use language, rather than being prescriptive, dictating how language should be used. As the Merriam-Webster editors put it in their update, “If you’re likely to encounter a word in the wild, whether in the news, a restaurant menu, a tech update, or a Twitter meme, that word belongs in the dictionary.” Also among the 850 words added last month were mansplain, hate-watch, and welp, all words you probably see at least once a day on the Internet but not ones you’d always use in formal writing. And you might remember in 2013 when Merriam-Webster added a second definition to literally that acknowledged the fact that people use it to mean figuratively, which made a whole lot of people very unhappy. (There are definitely still some holdouts on that one.)
It’s also worth pointing out that not all dictionary entries are created equal. Embiggen gets the disclaimers “informal” and “humorous” tacked onto it, just as shit gets “vulgar” and prithee gets “archaic.” MW also helpfully notes on its site how popular any given word is—notorious is in the top 30 percent of words, while dox is in the bottom 10 percent.
So what counts as a real word? In reality, there isn’t a definitive answer. As with most things involving language, it’s all about context. What’s right in a history textbook isn’t the same as what’s right online. What’s right for a publisher that follows Merriam-Webster isn’t even necessarily right for another that follows American Heritage.
As Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, has said, “Most English speakers accept the fact that the language changes over time, but don’t accept the changes made in their own time.” This leads to what a lot of editors and other language nerds call “zombie rules”: supposed edicts that most people have left by the wayside but that self-proclaimed language purists won’t let die, claiming they represent the only truly correct way to do things. When was the last time you heard someone say they were “nauseated” rather than “nauseous”? (The second one has historically described something vomit-inducing, not someone who’s queasy, but times have changed.) Do you roll your eyes when someone insists that “hopefully” can only mean “in a hopeful way” and not “it is hoped that”? (Almost everyone uses it the second way.) And for an example of a zombie grammar rule, most of us split our infinitives all the time—especially in geekdom, where “to go boldly” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
So where does that leave us with embiggen? As far as I’m concerned, it deserves a place in the dictionary just as much as subtweet and Yorkie-poo. But the most important thing is not to take it too seriously—Merriam-Webster’s Twitter feed definitely won’t.