Over the past quarter-century, almost everything has been referenced on “The Simpsons,” and Latin is no exception. However, no one has ever compiled a list of Latin references on the series, so here’s my catalog with commentary.
Probably the most famous Latin phrase in “The Simpsons” is the motto on Mayor Quimby’s seal, “Corruptus in extremis,” which appears in multiple episodes. Quimby is infamously corrupt—selling the school’s milk contract to the Mafia, using taxpayer dollars to have his enemies killed—so the intended meaning is obvious, “Corrupt in the extreme.” The Latin phrase “in extremis” usually means “at the farthest reaches” or “as a last resort,” so this could arguably have the opposite meaning, that Quimby is corrupt only as a last resort—though no one other than Quimby’s press secretary is likely to spin it that way.
By contrast, pity poor Springfield University, which has no Latin motto at all. The sign beside its gate reads, “Ask about our Latin motto contest,” as shown in the episode “Homer Goes to College” (1F02, 1993). The university was founded in 1952, so if they still don’t have a motto, don’t hold your breath. Some people have hypothesized this might be a dig at Cornell University, the only Ivy League school without a Latin motto, but that might be more convincing if Springfield University had been founded in 1865.
It’s no surprise that Lisa Simpson, the bookish genius, knows Latin; this was demonstrated in “Gone, Maggie, Gone” (LABF04, 2009), a spoof of “The Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure.” At the convent where Maggie is being held, a stained glass window features the Latin phrase “Quaerite Deum in corde et anima,” which is flawless Latin for “Seek God in heart and soul.” (Kudos to scriptwriters Billy Kimball and Ian Maxtone-Graham on that one.) Lisa translates it and realizes she must play the song “Heart and Soul” on the organ to continue her quest. (Actually, she translates it as “Seek God with heart and soul,” but that’s a nitpick.) Later in the episode, Latin makes another appearance when the nuns sing the 13th-century Latin poem “O Fortuna,” as set to music by Carl Orff in his “Carmina Burana.”
The only student on a par with Lisa is Martin Prince, so it makes sense that he knows Latin too. In “Treehouse of Horror VI” (3F04, 1995), Martin falls asleep in class after finishing a standardized test early, then he has what is, for him, a wonderful dream: he’s dressed as a wizard, triumphantly conjugating Latin verbs on a giant blackboard. (Hey, we’ve all had that dream, right?)
Martin: “I am the wondrous wizard of Latin! I am a dervish of declension and a conjurer of conjugation, with a million hit points and maximum charisma.” [He reads from the blackboard.] “Aha! Morire: to die. Morit: he, she, or it dies.”
[Groundskeeper Willie morphs out of the blackboard; Martin gasps.]
Groundskeeper Willie: “Moris: You die!”
Martin: [runs off] “Aaagh!”
Groundskeeper Willie: “You’ve mastered a dead tongue, but can you handle a live one?” [Willie’s tongue shoots out of his mouth and squeezes Martin to death.]
Nelson: [in the classroom, seeing Martin die in real life] “Ha-ha!”
However, Martin isn’t as good a Latin scholar as Lisa because his dream ignores the fact that the Latin verb for “to die” (morior, mori, mortuus) is deponent and therefore exists only in the passive voice, despite having an active meaning. All three forms in the episode are therefore incorrect. Hypothetically, if it weren’t deponent, the verb would have the forms “moris” (“you die”) and “morit” (“he/she/it dies”), but the active infinitive would be “morere” (because it’s third conjugation), not “morire” (which would be fourth conjugation). To the writers’ credit, most of the other Latin words on the blackboard are valid, including three subjunctive forms of the verb “to give” (“demus,” “daremus,” and “dederim“); which of the other words are valid is left as an exercise for the reader.
There’s no evidence that Springfield Elementary teaches Latin, so presumably Lisa and Martin learned it on their own. By contrast, there’s a Latin connection for their school’s archrival, Shelbyville Elementary. In “The PTA Disbands” (2F19, 1995), the Shelbyville Elementary bus that arrives at Diz-Nee Historical Park bears the motto “Veritas et scientia.” This is accurate Latin for “Truth and knowledge.” Many writers for “The Simpsons” attended Harvard University, whose motto is “Veritas,” but that’s probably coincidental because dozens of schools use “Veritas” in their mottoes. The episode’s scriptwriter, Jennifer Crittenden, attended Wesleyan University, which has no motto, though she also attended Miami Palmetto High School, whose motto is “Vis per scientiam” (“Strength through knowledge”), so that might explain the second half of the motto on Shelbyville Elementary’s bus. More likely, however, the motto just reflects a standard academic sentiment.
Surprisingly, we know Homer Simpson took Latin in school. In “The Front” (9F16, 1993), in order to earn his high school diploma, Homer retakes a science class he once failed. As he explains to Marge:
Homer: “I never passed Remedial Science 1A.”
Marge: “And you’re a nuclear technician?”
Homer: “Marge! Ix-nay on the uclear-nay echnician-tay.”
Marge: “What did you say?”
Homer: “I dunno. I flunked Latin, too.”
So Homer at one point took a Latin class, but not only did he fail, he learned so little that he’s hazy on the difference between Latin and Pig Latin. Because he doesn’t need to retake Latin to earn his diploma, presumably it was an elective—though it’s odd to think that Homer would take a Latin class if it weren’t mandatory. Incidentally, several episodes feature Pig Latin. A long dialogue in Pig Latin appears in “Marge vs. Everyone” (FABF03, 2004), when Bart and Lisa try to conceal their conversation from Marge, only to have her remind them, in Pig Latin, that she used to be a child too.
Though his Latin is weak, two episodes contain conflicting references to Homer saying “Semper fidelis,” the U.S. Marine Corps motto, which is Latin for “Always faithful.” In “The Old Man and the Key” (DABF09, 2002), Homer correctly says the shortened version “Semper fi” when saluting “the good men who just lost their lives” as he and Bart play the hybrid board game Scrabbleship. However, in “He Loves To Fly and He D’ohs” (JABF20, 2007), Homer mistakenly says “Semper fudge” after obtaining a favor from a pilot by pretending to be a fellow Marine, and he’s unable to provide the correct phrase when the pilot catches his error. The intervening five years of Duff drinking must have dislodged that Latin phrase from his brain: quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus. (As a side note, although Homer never served in the Marine Corps, he did serve in the Army (“Two Dozen and One Greyhounds,” 2F18, 1995, and “G.I. (Annoyed Grunt),” HABF21, 2006) and the Navy Reserve (“Simpson Tide,” 3G04, 1998).)
I can’t find any indication that Marge has studied Latin, but given her impressive ability to learn Portuguese when the Simpsons travel to Brazil for the World Cup (“You Don’t Have to Live Like a Referee,” SABF11, 2014), she might have a knack for learning it, especially with the benefit of knowing a Romance language. Of course, one could say the same about Homer after he masters Spanish while waiting in line at the Kwik-E-Mart in “Million Dollar Maybe” (MABF03, 2010).
Next we come to Bart, the Simpson who seems least likely to know Latin. In “Bart on the Road” (3F17, 1996), Bart uses some Dog Latin to make fun of Lisa. Bart pretends to have been selected for the National Grammar Rodeo in Canada, but it’s really a cover for his planned road trip to Knoxville:
Marge: “The National Grammar Rodeo? I wish I were going. Oh, wait, wait: I wish I was going. Is that right, Bart?”
Bart: “I dunno.”
Lisa: “It’s not fair. I’m the best student in school, how come I never heard about this competition?”
Bart: “Maybe because you are, as we say in Latin, a ‘dorkus malorkus.'”
Lisa: “That’s not Latin. Mom, Bart’s faking it.”
Marge: “Lisa, you’ve had your glory. Now it’s Bart’s turn.”
A decade later, however, Bart learns some real Latin. In “The Father, The Son, and The Holy Guest Star” (GABF09, 2005), Bart enrolls in Catholic school after his expulsion from Springfield Elementary. Homer eventually converts to Catholicism as well, enticed partly by a pancake dinner, but before his conversion, he’s confused by Bart’s Latin prayer:
Marge: “Bart, would you like to say grace?”
Bart: “Yes’m. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”
Homer: “Bart, what the hell are you saying?”
Lisa: “That’s Latin, Dad. The language of Plutarch.”
Homer: “Mickey Mouse’s dog?”
Lisa: “No, Plutarch. He chronicled the lives of the Roman emperors.”
Bart recites the Trinitarian formula, meaning “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In a surprising reversal of roles, Bart’s Latin is completely correct, while Lisa’s follow-up comment is incorrect. Although Plutarch lived during the early part of the Roman Empire and later acquired Roman citizenship, he was Greek, having been born and raised near Delphi, and his works were written exclusively in Greek, including the “Parallel Lives” to which Lisa refers.
Let’s close our discussion of the core Simpson family with a pair of mock-Latin taxonomic names. In a nod to the old Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, the episode “Homer Alone” (8F14, 1992) shows Bart being chased by Homer, and their scientific names are given as “Bratus Don’thaveacowus” and “Homo Neanderthalus” respectively. (The real taxonomic term for Neanderthals is Homo neanderthalensis.)
Moving to the series at large, we see that only one episode has a Latin-inspired title: “E Pluribus Wiggum” (KABF03, 2008), a reference to the U.S. slogan “E pluribus unum” meaning “One out of many.” When Springfield holds the first presidential primary election in the United States, candidates flock to the town, but “out of many” candidates, eight-year-old Ralph Wiggum emerges as the sole candidate for both Republicans and Democrats. (Despite its ending, the name Wiggum isn’t derived from Latin, especially because the letter “W” didn’t exist in classical Latin. Instead, Wiggum was the maiden name of the mother of Matt Groening, the creator of “The Simpsons.”)
In “22 Short Films About Springfield” (3F18, 1996), dubious physician Nick Riviera appeases Abe Simpson’s hypochondria by telling Abe he has “bonus eruptus,” defining it as “a terrible disorder where the skeleton tries to leap out the mouth and escape the body.” This is a mock-Latin parody of medical terms. The true Latin word for “bone” is “os, ossis” (third declension neuter), so the phrase would actually be “os eruptum,” but because all the bones are trying to leap out, the plural “ossa erupta” would make more sense than the singular. “Bonus” is the Latin word for “good,” but that’s clearly not the meaning Dr. Nick had in mind.
Another mock-Latin medical term is “Crayola oblongata,” the surgical operation in which Moe Szyslak re-inserts a crayon through Homer’s nose into his brain, thus lowering Homer’s IQ from its unbearable Algernon-like peak of 105. This appeared in “HOMЯ” (BABF22, 2001), and the phrase was a play on the crayon brand Crayola and “medulla oblongata,” a part of the brain whose name ultimately derives from the Latin words “medulla” (“pith” or “marrow”) and “oblongata” (“elongated”).
Because C. Montgomery Burns is ancient, you might expect him to speak Latin as a way of demonstrating his age, but instead the writers have him rely on archaic-sounding coinages, some of which are Latinesque. In “Homer the Smithers” (3F14, 1996), Burns admits he’ll need to rely on a car’s manual to distinguish the “velocitator” from the “deceleratrix,” nonce Latinate coinages for the gas pedal and brake pedal. “Deceleratrix” is the feminine form, while the masculine form would be the more standard “decelerator.” In “The Seven-Beer Snitch” (GABF08, 2005), Burns says he needs more convicts in the “dungeonarium,” adding a Latin suffix to an English word, though even the English “dungeon” ultimately derives, via the French “donjon,” from the Latin “dominus” meaning “lord” or “master.”
Coining nouns through Latin suffixes isn’t confined to Burns, and the series is especially fond of the Latinate ending “-ium” (or “-eum”):
- In “Lisa’s Wedding” (2F15, 1995), Chief Wiggum runs a Renaissance fair tent called “Friar Wiggum’s Fantastical Beastarium.” (The authentic Medieval Latin word for a bestiary is slightly different, “bestiarium.”) Friar Wiggum’s prize exhibit is the fearsome Esquilax, a horse with the head of a rabbit and the body of a rabbit, whose made-up name likely alludes to Latin “equus” meaning “horse.”
- In “This Little Wiggy” (5F13, 1998), the town is home to the Springfield Knowledgeum, a museum “where science is explained with brightly-colored balls.” This is a mock-Latin portmanteau of “knowledge” and “museum,” spoofing the names of real-world institutions such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium and Washington DC’s Newseum.
- On Springfield Elementary’s periodic table, provided by bologna-maker Oscar Mayer, element 42 is “bolognium,” whose symbol is Bo and whose atomic weight is “delicious” or “snacktacular.” (In real life, element 42 is molybdenum, Mo.) Strangely, almost all the other elements are correct as of the episode’s airdate, though molybdenum is moved to where actinium should be, a fictitious element with symbol We (presumably “wienerium”) appears in place of lanthanum, Uhe is an apparent typo for Une as the former symbol for meitnerium, and the rightmost seven columns are missing. This appears in “Lisa Gets an ‘A'” (AABF03, 1998).
Not surprisingly, many of the show’s portmanteau coinages involve Latin roots, though their meanings are implied more by English words than by Latin. Two examples used by Homer are “sacrilicious” (when Homer eats a waffle to which he had been praying, in “Homer Loves Flanders,” 1F14, 1994) and “ovulicious” (when Homer eats a strawberry-flavored fertility pill that he had secretly been feeding to Manjula, in “Eight Misbehavin’,” BABF03, 1999). Another is “scientician,” possibly a play on “scientist” alone, but more likely a portmanteau of “scientist” and “dietician” because the scientist appears in a dietary context, namely the pro-carnivore filmstrip “Meat and You: Partners in Freedom” (“Lisa the Vegetarian,” 3F03, 1995). Not quite a portmanteau, but still in the spirit of altering English words with Latin roots, is “superliminal” advertising, a Navy recruiting method distinguished from “subliminal” and “liminal” (“New Kids on the Blecch,” CABF12, 2001). Finally, in a parody of the David and Goliath story from 1 Samuel 17, after the giant Nelson Muntz (Goliath II) is killed, Eddie the cop arrests Bart (King David) for “megacide” (“Simpsons Bible Stories,” AABF14, 1999); although the Greek “mega-” doesn’t really belong with the Latin “-cide” (from “caedere,” meaning “to kill”), “megacide” is much funnier than “giganticide,” a purely Latin-derived word found in many English dictionaries.
The most famous coinage on “The Simpsons” is “cromulent,” which has become a perfectly cromulent word meaning “authentic” or “legitimate,” ever since its initial appearance in “Lisa the Iconoclast” (3F13, 1996). I’m sure writer David X. Cohen coined it with no thought for its possible etymology, but given that adjectives ending in “-lent” are usually derived from Latin, I propose an etymology from the Latin word “croma,” a first declension noun defined by the 1982 Oxford Latin Dictionary as a “surveying instrument for taking bearings to fix lines of orientation.” The noun’s diminutive form would notionally be “cromula.” I know no other Latin word with the root “crom-,” and it’s easy to imagine that a small instrument whose purpose is to measure straight, accurate lines could yield an adjective meaning “legitimate” or “authentic.”
As a case of omission, the series sidesteps an implied Latin reference in “They Saved Lisa’s Brain” (AABF18, 1999). When Lisa is invited to her first Mensa meeting, she correctly remarks that Mensa is “a constellation visible only from the Southern Hemisphere.” Although the most intelligent people in Springfield are there, no one mentions that Mensa is also the Latin word for “table,” which is the real-world origin of the group’s name, as well as the origin of the constellation’s name.
We wrap up the series with its least erudite character: Cletus Spuckler. It’s surprising that, with the exception of Julius Hibbert, Cletus is the recurring character with the most overtly Latinate name. The English-language name Cletus originated as a shorter form of the Latin name Anacletus, best known as the name of the third Catholic Pope. In turn, Anacletus is a Latinized form of the Greek name Ανακλητος (Anakletos), quite a classical etymology for a slack-jawed yokel.
Even outside the series itself, there’s a connection between “The Simpsons” and Latin. A pale yellow sand crab, discovered in East Asia, has been given the Latin taxonomic name Albunea groeningi in honor of series creator Matt Groening. The crab’s species name is the genitive form of Groening’s surname, treated as if it were the second declension masculine noun “Groeningus.” It was named in 2002 by Dr. Christopher B. Boyko, a crustacean expert in the biology department at Dowling College in New York.
As this review shows, “The Simpsons” plays with Latin in almost every way possible: accurate and erroneous, religious and scientific, mock Latin and Pig Latin, mottoes and coinages, a snacktacular element and a killer dream. If you’ve spotted any other Latin references in “The Simpsons,” feel free to leave them in the comments.