“Keep your eyes glued to that (television) set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.” — Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow, 1961

Whether or not the state of what we see on our televisions has improved over the past 60 years remains to be seen, but the medium does have at least one redeeming value: It has added many new words to our collective lexicon. So join me, won’t you, as I take a look at a few of the words that entered our wonderful language through the magic of television.

As you join me, feel free to ponder whether the word is a nonce word (a new word fabricated by its author for a single occasion) or a neologism (any newly coined word). Linguists like to make such distinctions, though determining which is which is not always easy.

The next time you’re being pursued by the police, you can take comfort in the fact that you know the slang for the po-po: “Five-0,” which comes from the CBS cop show “Hawaii Five-0.” (The network has also informed journalists that they shouldn’t use the capital letter “O” when typing the program’s title, but rather the number zero — “0” – even though it’s still pronounced “oh.”)

If you’ve ever walked around wondering what word “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” could possibly have added to our lexicon, let me help you out: The answer is “google.” No, not the capitalized name of the giant search engine, but rather its repurposing into a verb, when the show’s star, played by Sarah Michelle Geller, told another character to google someone’s name.

Some situation comedies that have given us new or repurposed words are “30 Rock,” which applied the business term “dealbreaker” to relationships, and “Gilligan’s Island,” which is responsible for adding the word “ribbit” to the vocabulary of frogs everywhere. (Interestingly, Gilligan’s character had no first name, and the castaways’ boat was named the S.S. Minnow, after the above-mentioned Newton Minow.)


The sitcom that probably invented more new words than any other was “Seinfeld,” which gave us such gems as: “yada, yada, yada” (the glossing over of the boring parts of a story); “mimbo” (a male bimbo); and “regifting” (making a re-present of an unwanted label maker).

Late night TV’s contributions to the coinage cause include: “crunk” (crazy and drunk) from Conan O’Brien’s show “Conan.” The term reminds me of being “hangry” (hungry and angry) when I need a Snickers, which gets me wondering: If you’re crunk and hangry at the same time, does that make you “crangry?”

And it would be a shame to overlook “truthiness” (“truth” that’s derived from gut feelings rather than actual facts), which comes to us by way of Stephen Colbert’s “Colbert Report” in 2005 – and is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Not to be overlooked in their creation of words are kids shows and cartoons. For example, when Bugs Bunny calls Elmer Fudd a “nimrod,” he’s not talking about a biblical king in the land of Shinar, but rather calling his adversary “an inept person.” On the other hand, a smart person might be called a “Poindexter,” which comes to us by way of the “Felix the Cat” show.

If you think that “cowabunga” (an expression of satisfaction or delight) originated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or maybe Bart Simpson, sorry, you’ll have to go further back than that. The word was originally the greeting of Native American Chief Thunderthud on “The Howdy Doody Show” of the 1950s. (By the way, Howdy’s twin brother was named Double Doody. Really.)

So, in the words of the “Simpsons,” I hope my efforts here have managed to “embiggen” (increase in size) your understanding of where some new words come from, and that my efforts haven’t been met with a hearty “D’oh!” (which is written as “annoyed grunt” in the script, and means “realizing that you’ve just committed a stupid act.”)

In other words, as Lisa Simpson would say, I hope you found this piece “cromulent” (fine or acceptable) and don’t find yourself turning the page with an indifferent “meh.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at jlwitherell19@gmail.com.

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