Sunday, May 20, 2007

Morphology enhances a joke

On The Simpsons tonight Principal Skinner told Lisa to enhance a computer image of an empty school desk. When the image showed "Skinner Stinks" scratched into the top he quickly ordered "Dehance! Dehance!"

This is not quite a back formation. With a back formation we would expect to find the word hance used as a root of the word enhance. Back formation is conspicuous when the morphology is not productive or assumed root is not the actual root. But it doesn't have to be a false assumption to be a back formation. Even though George Bush (elder) might not have heard "recreate" as the verb root of "recreation" he was using a form descended from the Latin recreāre.

But this Simpsonian derivational morphology does assume (ironically) that enhance en- is the productive opposite of de-. While en- does etymologically correspond to a sense of towards, at, for or in the direction of it's not working morphologically anymore. The morpheme was once part of a productive form but no more. The joke comes from the implication that it's still a productive morphology. It's not much of a leap. We do find a somewhat productive en- in a lot of words. (Note: the OED treats en- and in- as practically identical forms. em-/im- could be included in that form as conditioned variants.)

There's just no productive antithetical substitutional de- form that I can think of. In some cases dis- can be an agglutinated prefix as in disembody. But disbody is as odd as dehance.

This joke works partly because after hearing the word and thinking Haha that's not a real word. You can't "hance" something a little voice starts to whisper hey...why not?


  1. The first time I heard that little voice asking "Hey... why not?" was with the word overwhelmed. And I've always wanted to work the root word into my conversational vocabulary, so that when somebody asks me how I'm doing with work or what I thought about a musical, I can say, "I was whelmed."

    Reasonably content, no more, no less.

  2. I guess, given the specific situation, "defocus" could be an accurate description, or "deface", or even "degrade", but no direct antonym to the usage fits. None of them would be funny, nor quite as Skinneresque.

    This is partly the result of our usage of "enhance" to describe using computer calculations to improve on the initial clarity of an image. The term has an imperfect fit to this usage in the first place. I believe this is largely an artifact of spy movies to be honest. "Sharpening" or "clarifying" a picture is the more precise term. "Enhance" has such broad meaning... and is highly subjective. An artist solarizing a picture to create a particular effect is "enhancing" it, for the particular goal they have in mind. A journalist using Photoshop to compose images to make them appear more violent likewise "enhances" them in respect to his own goals. And all the while, almost all fictional depictions of "digitally enhancing" images are just that, fictional; you still can't create information that wasn't originally there. All we can do is infer information, and calculations are poor at that, that is a job requiring familiarity with the subject matter of the image. In my time on SecurityArms, identifying odd firearms around the world, I have not to my recollection encountered "enhance" used to mean sharpening an image. And we do that regularly, finding out what the blurry shape in a guerrilla's hands is, and what it is capable of, isn't uncommon for us. Even if we aren't working from an NSA situation room, I have strong doubts about intelligence agencies using "enhance" in this manner very often either.

    In which case, I'd suggest the Hollywood usage of the word "enhance" was also deserving of some small ridicule as well... to me adding another layer to the joke. When I'm asking someone to improve the clarity of an image, I'm not going to ask them to "make it greater" or "exalt" it. Unless there is an antecedent usage in this way in the intelligence world I am unaware of, I have the impression this is a case of pop culture slightly influencing perceived meaning. And of course, once everyone's computer became capable of accomplishing similar feats, the usage was borrowed from spy movies and became common.

    I must admit I am biased and could be wrong; but I find the knowledgeability conveyed by the entertainment industry in some fields to be routinely underwhelming.

  3. Justin, I was just about to emptively (eh? eh?) address that myself. Something that never fails to annoy me is in those CSI style shows and movies when they see a cctv image and are able to enhance it completely beyond the possible capabilities of the camera. They start off by zooming in on someone's irretrievably blurry face, then the image-specialist says 'Ill just clean this up a bit' and, using a photoshopesque piece of software, clicks a brush on the image a few times to reveal a crisp, detailed image. Nonsense!

    I've also tried to use 'whelm' every now and then, Casey, but to no avail. 'To empt' and perhaps even sometimes to 'post-empt', I find, is a bit more successful.

  4. I'm alright with enhance as a concept, and as a word; it does lend itself to requiring an object to raise the degree of (see "male" enhancement). I'll leave the technical critique to the experts.

    Whelm is a fun word, but given its meaning "to cover with water, submerge," underwhelm is being quite spuriously. Unless you mean "to uncover, emerge" or more accurately "partially cover."

  5. Underwhelm implies that I felt anything but out of my depth. :)

  6. And any Simpsons fan knows that debiggen is a perfectly cromulent antonym of embiggen. See, e.g., Does the use of 'Paradigm' debiggen our vocabulary?

  7. Ha!

    Thank you Mr Zimmer. That page is giving me a headache.


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