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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | “damn,” “I just shot myself in the foot,” “curses, foiled again,” “annoyed grunt,” etc.)

As a Simpsons devotee from the Tracey Ullman days, I can’t resist including this one, even though in my experience, it isn’t used often in conversation or outside of immediately Simpsons-related contexts. I’ve never heard anyone use it unself-consciously; you always know you’re quoting Homer. But, still . . . it’s in the OED Online, which chose sensibly enough to spell it “doh.” I never understood why the apostrophe became part of the standard spelling, but it is. There’s no reason for it that I can see. Otherwise, it’s a nice, economical spelling. Deaux, anyone?

Much has been made of the Simpsons’ contributions to modern vocabulary, and “d’oh” is probably the most significant of the single words, along with “woohoo” and maybe “meh.” (Isn’t the much-touted faux-Yiddish “meh” just an elaboration of an existing unspellable monosyllable expressing indifference? You know the one: it’s like a short “a” or maybe a short “e” sound with a “y” sound at the end.) Some of the claims seem overblown to me; most of the new words are more like nonce words or malapropisms. As amusing as they may be, they hardly qualify as additions to the language. Here, nonetheless, is a thorough list of them. Outside of kid bloggers and Simpsons fanatics, does anyone really say “cromulent” or “craptacular,” much less “kwyjibo”? I’ve never heard or overheard them in conversation or seen them in print — outside of articles and blog posts on additions to the language from the Simpsons, that is. We do work awfully hard to assure ourselves that our popular culture has value and permanence.

graphic novel

(late 1980’s | businese (publishing) | “(overgrown) comic book”)

They weren’t invented by disaffected baby boomers, you know. Milt Gross, one of our greatest humorists, published a wordless novel, composed entirely of drawings, in 1930 (He Done Her Wrong), a parody of other wordless novels being “written” at the time. I suppose flipbooks are primitive graphic novels. Then there were “classics illustrated” comics, boiled-down comic-book renderings of Robinson Crusoe and that sort of thing. But that clearly wasn’t the same. A graphic novel is now understood to be original work. I remember Pogo books fondly, which made pretty good graphic novels, if a little too episodic. Of course, the genre was well-established in France and Japan long before 1980. The American boom began, so they say, when that artist’s artist Will Eisner came out with A Contract with God in 1978, now widely regarded as the fountainhead of the graphic novel as we know it today. Does William Blake count? Not really; he didn’t use the panel form characteristic of comic books and graphic novels alike.

The term bloomed in the late 1980’s, although it was current in the comics biz a few years earlier. My girlfriend noted accurately the two early works that had a decisive impact on the reception of graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight, both released in 1986. The term was brand-new then; apparently it had not been applied to known specimens of the genre, like manga or Tintin, previously. Critics and publishers quickly took it up. Adweek listed graphic novels as a new fad in 1988, and by the early 1990’s the term required no explanation. Acceptance of both the term and the thing itself was quick and simultaneous.

Here‘s an explanation of the origin of the term, generally credited to Will Eisner. It seems clear that “novel” was intended to add heft and encourage publishers and critics to take seriously what looked to most of them like a comic book. says that it was “coined as a marketing term,” and it’s true that publishers soon latched onto it, again because it made the genre seem more respectable.

When “graphic” was used as an adjective in my youth, it meant raw, explicit, or uncensored, as in “graphic violence”; or having to do with printing, drawing, calligraphy, etc., as in “graphic arts.” The second use has persisted and also come into its own as a noun, with a big boost from computer lingo — we’re all experts on web graphics now. But the first has become less common, except perhaps in capsule movie reviews. In another generation, it may seem archaic, and kids won’t understand why “graphic” once meant something scary. (Since “graphic novel” was sometimes defined as “long comic book for adults,” it was still possible in the early days for “graphic” to retain the sense of “adult, therefore explicit,” but that use hasn’t held on. In everyday usage, the graphic novel has pretty well shed the notion that it’s all about sex and violence.)

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