Aroo, Abie, and Nibsy

John Baker wins the Language Glass Prize (announced here) with samples of all three of the classic comic strips from the Zippy strip in that posting: King Aroo, which Griffy cited for its big words; Abie the Agent, for its Yiddish dialect humor; and Nibsy the Newsboy, for its almost nonsensical syntax.

Baker notes that King Aroo “tended to be a pretty intellectual strip, by mainstream newspaper standards, but most of the strips did not use particularly long words”. Here in the 10/28/1951 strip, the reader is expected to know the word seismograph:

(for all the strips, click on the image to embiggen it)

and in the 12/2/1951 strip, a firefly gives an explanation that really delivers the vocabulary goods:

And Abie the Agent — Abie is Abraham Kabibble, an agent for an automobile manufacturer — was generally rich in Yiddishisms, as in this strip from 7/20/1917:

But Nibsy the Newsboy, Baker reports, is pretty disappointing in the syntax department; the strip seems to have relied heavily on casual speech forms and Irish-English pronunciations, but otherwise to have been unsurprising in its syntax, as in this strip from 7/1/1906 :

(Aroo from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune; Abie from Wikipedia; Nibsy from Blackbeard, Crain & Vance, 100 Years of Comic Strips (2004). Baker apologizes for the cutoff in scanning the Nibsy in. Other image-massaging by my own hand.)

4 Responses to “Aroo, Abie, and Nibsy”

  1. John Baker Says:

    I didn’t even notice at the time that the newspaper distributor’s speech in the final panel was cut off, so focused was I on Nibsy’s remarks. The distributor is saying, “Aw, quit yer kiddin’ an’ git on de job!”

  2. David Says:

    Given the obvious sense of the word in the original Simpsons quote: “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”, I hardly think that clicking on the image is embiggening anything. Especially since I still couldn’t read the Abie or the Nibsy after enlarging them. Cheers.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      To David, on the “obvious sense” of the original Simpsons use: the sense of embiggen there is simply ‘make bigger’, but in the context big is used in a specific sense. My use of embiggen on this blog (and Mark Liberman’s on Language Log) is also in the sense ‘make bigger’, but with a somewhat different sense of big.

      So I maintain that embiggen has the same sense in both these occurrences (and in others you can find on the Wikipedia page for the Simpsons episode), but with different connotations in different contexts.

      The choice of embiggen rather than enlarge is, admittedly, playful, but what’s wrong with that?

      The first Simpsons use, in the school motto “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”, has something special going for it: the pairing of big with its antonym small. This is missing in the other use of embiggen in that same episode, Principal Skinner’s “He’s embiggened that role with his cromulent performance”.

  3. John Baker Says:

    For the Abie strip, at least, you can see a more legible image at

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