How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.

The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.

Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:

[click images to embiggen]

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-1

Before we go on, it’s worth noting that while snuck is not universally liked or accepted, most contemporary usage authorities consider it standard, more or less, noting its unmarked occurrence at virtually all levels of English.

Back on Planet of the Strange-O’s (Radioactive Man calls this world ‘bizzaro’ – a misspelling I’ll address some other time), the linguistic in-fighting spreads, and snuck is demoted from nonstandard to downright incorrect:

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-2

Punched out of the melee – punched right off the planet, in fact – Radioactive Man realises the Strange-O’s are plotting to take over his world, so he disguises himself as one of them by putting concrete on his face and punching it before returning to the scene.

His verb choice gives him away again, but the Strange-O’s are distracted being amusingly alarmist about linguistic degradation:

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-3

By the time they realise what’s happened, it’s too late to stop him:

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-4

Radioactive Man then destroys the inter-dimensional portal-potty by double-flushing it (FLUSH! FLUSH! KABOOM!). The Strange-O’s are left frustrated yet relieved, and, maybe as a result of their confusion, they misidentify the passive voice:

simpsons-comics-royale-radioactive-man-snuck-5

‘I’ve ever heard’ (essentially ‘I have heard’) is perfect tense, not passive voice. If the clause were in passive voice it would be the unnatural-sounding ‘His poor grammar and syntax were the worst that have ever been heard by me.’

Given the story’s tongue-in-cheek nature, I can’t be sure the mix-up was unintentional. But nothing about it suggests irony on that point, and previous form from most people commenting on the passive voice – including language professionals – leads me to suppose it was an unconscious error. Fun story, though.

[Comic credits: Story: Jesse Leon McCann & Robert L. Graff; Art: Hilary Barta; Letters: Chris Ungar; Colours: Nathan Kane; Edits: Bill Morrison; Bizarro No. 1: Matt Groening.]

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16 Responses to How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic

  1. sarahlivne says:

    Oh, I think it’s all part of the same cromulent joke on the grammar purists. But it is indeed a fun story. Thanks for bringing it here!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’d be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt if they had established their knowledge of the terrain – but there’s more than a whiff of bluffing about it. Good to have another interpretation, though!

  2. gill francis says:

    Brilliant!

  3. They also are confused about what a past participle is.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, and I meant to address this too. It may relate to their uncertainty about the perfect tense in the penultimate frame, or maybe they’re just working from half-remembered ideas instead of looking them up to make sure.

  4. […] via How a usage dispute snuck into a Simpsons comic — Sentence first […]

  5. astraya says:

    I started wondering how snuck happened in the first place. The answer seems to be be ‘no-one knows’. But I think two dictionary blog discussions go too far – ‘snuck has become the standard variant past tense and past participle of the verb sneak‘ (Dictionary.com) and ‘snuck has become by some estimations the more common past tense form in the US’ (M-W). Google Ngrams shows snuck’ at around half of sneaked and Google searches return 152,000,000 results for sneaked and 11,500,000 for snuck. (With due acknowledgement of the limitations of those research tools.) Also, WordPress’s text editor red-underlines snuck.
    Gosh I hate typing angle bracket mark-up.

    • Stan Carey says:

      In my earlier post about how snuck sneaked into English, I wrote about its mysterious emergence ‘from some uncharted dialectal area’ (quoting Burchfield). Pinker, in Words and Rules, discusses the possibility that it came about through sound symbolism – I’d say that even if this wasn’t its origin, it helped reinforce it; this is also quoted in the earlier post. I don’t think any definitive answers have materialised in the meantime.

      As for its status in standard English, I don’t think this is disputable. Garner is holding out, calling it nonstandard in his Modern English Usage but also placing it at stage 4 in his language-change index (= ‘virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots)’). Most tellingly is the dramatic swing in the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. From its 2016 edition:

      Widespread use of snuck in the United States has become more common with every generation. It is now used by educated speakers in all regions and was acceptable to 75 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2008 survey. This stands in marked contrast to the 67 percent that disapproved of snuck twenty years earlier. The more traditional form sneaked, which predominates in British English, is fully acceptable as well, with 90 percent approving it in 2008.

      • astraya says:

        I left Google Ngrams on the default date of 2000, at which date ‘sneaked’ was comfortably ahead of ‘snuck’. In your earlier post, you include a graph which Emily Brewster sent you, up to 2008, which shows ‘snuck’ really took off in those 8 years. She also searched for ‘sneaked/snuck up on’ and in your tweet you included ‘snuck into’. Some other prepositions just don’t seem to work (as well): ?’The cat snuck through the long grass’.

        • Stan Carey says:

          Yes, the gap is closing rapidly: snuck looks likely to overtake sneaked (at least in Google’s Ngram Viewer) within a few years. “The cat snuck through the long grass” works fine for me; if anything, its consonant cluster is easier to produce than that in sneaked through.

  6. It’s amusing that one of the doppelgängers splits an infinitive in the second last panel (“…to never visit …”). With their attitude, they would probably think that was the sin against the Holy Ghost.

  7. I love that the Simpsons can actually teach us something–or not teach us something. I suppose it’s all in how you look at it! Great find!

  8. […] Irish editor and “swivel-chair linguist” Stan Carey blogs about how usage snuck/sneaked into The Simpsons. […]

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