What Homer Simpson Can Teach You About Language

“English? Who needs that? I’m never going to England!”

Woo-hoo! The immortal words of Mr. Homer Simpson—beer-guzzling, donut-popping patriarch, nuclear-power-plant safety inspector, and Springfield’s resident rhetorician. Indeed, Homer has contributed far more to the English language than just the popular interjection “D’oh.” Let’s take a look at some of those rich contributions—and along the way review several rhetorical terms.

Homer’s Rhetorical Questions

Consider this exchange from a Simpson family symposium:

Mother Simpson: [singing] How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
Homer: Seven.
Lisa: No, dad, it’s a rhetorical question.
Homer: OK, eight.
Lisa: Dad, do you even know what “rhetorical” means?
Homer: Do I know what “rhetorical” means?

In fact, Homeric logic often depends on a rhetorical question for its expression:

Books are useless! I only ever read one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin . . . but what good does that do me?

One particular type of rhetorical question favored by Homer is erotesis, a question implying strong affirmation or denial: “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?”

Homer’s Figures of Speech

Though sometimes misjudged as a complete moron, Homer is actually a deft manipulator of the oxymoron“Oh Bart, don’t worry, people die all the time. In fact, you could wake up dead tomorrow.” And our favorite figure of ridicule is actually quite handy with figures of speech. To explain human behavior, for instance, he relies on personification:

The only monster here is the gambling monster that has enslaved your mother! I call him Gamblor, and it’s time to snatch your mother from his neon claws!

Chiasmus guides Homer to new levels of self-understanding:

All right, brain, I don’t like you and you don’t like me–so let’s just do this, and I’ll get back to killing you with beer.

And here, in just five words, he manages to combine apostrophe and tricolon in a heartfelt encomium“Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover.”

Of course, Homer isn’t always familiar with the names of such classical figures:

Lisa: That’s Latin, Dad–the language of Plutarch.
Homer: Mickey Mouse’s dog?

But stop snickering, Lisa: the language of Plutarch was Greek.

Simpson Repeats

Like the great orators of ancient Greece and Rome, Homer employs repetition to evoke pathos and underscore key points. Here, for example, he inhabits the spirit of Susan Hayward in a breathless anaphora:

I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls. I’m sick of eating hoagies! I want a grinder, a sub, a foot-long hero! I want to LIVE, Marge! Won’t you let me live? Won’t you, please?”

Epizeuxis serves to convey a timeless Homeric truth:

When it comes to compliments, women are ravenous blood-sucking monsters always wanting more . . . more . . . MORE! And if you give it to them, you’ll get plenty back in return.

And polyptoton leads to a profound discovery:

Marge, what’s wrong? Are you hungry? Sleepy? Gassy? Gassy? Is it gas? It’s gas, isn’t it?

Homeric Arguments
Homer’s rhetorical turns, especially his efforts to argue by analogy, sometimes take odd detours:

Son, a woman is a lot like a . . . a refrigerator! They’re about six feet tall, 300 pounds. They make ice, and . . . um . . . Oh, wait a minute. Actually, a woman is more like a beer.
Son, a woman is like a beer. They smell good, they look good, you’d step over your own mother just to get one! But you can’t stop at one. You wanna drink another woman!
You know, boys, a nuclear reactor is a lot like a woman. You just have to read the manual and press the right buttons.
Fame was like a drug. But what was even more like a drug were the drugs.

Yes, Mr. Simpson is occasionally word challenged, as in the malapropism that punctuates this distinctively Homeric prayer:

Dear Lord, thank you for this microwave bounty, even though we don’t deserve it. I mean . . . our kids are uncontrollable hellions! Pardon my French, but they act like savages! Did you see them at the picnic? Oh, of course you did. You’re everywhere, you’re omnivorous. Oh Lord! Why did you spite me with this family?

Consider as well Homer’s eccentric (or perhaps dyslexic?) use of hypophora (raising questions and answering them): “What’s a wedding? Webster’s dictionary describes it as the act of removing weeds from one’s garden.” And now and then his thoughts collapse before he can make it to the end of a sentence, as in this case of aposiopesis:

I won’t sleep in the same bed with a woman who thinks I’m lazy! I’m going right downstairs, unfold the couch, unroll the sleeping ba–uh, goodnight.

The Master Rhetorician

But for the most part, Homer Simpson is an artful and deliberate rhetorician. For one thing, he’s a self-proclaimed master of verbal irony:

Owww, look at me, Marge, I’m making people happy! I’m the magical man, from Happy Land, who lives in a gumdrop house on Lolly Pop Lane! . . . By the way I was being sarcastic.

And he dispenses wisdom with dehortatio:

The code of the schoolyard, Marge! The rules that teach a boy to be a man. Let’s see. Don’t tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything, unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.