1. Education
Richard Nordquist

The Rhetoric of Homer Simpson

By April 1, 2007

Follow me on:

"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 a dozen 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!
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?

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.
  • And consider 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."

    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.

    Next time that you catch The Simpsons on TV, see if you can identify additional examples of these rhetorical concepts:

    For the complete critical vocabulary required to appreciate the wealth of Homer Simpson's rhetoric, please see our Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms.

    Update: For an expanded version of this article, visit Homer Simpson's Figures of Speech: Tripping Over Tropes With Springfield's Master Rhetorician.

    Image: Homer Simpson TM and FOX and its related entities.


    April 9, 2007 at 2:03 pm
    (1) Vanessa says:

    I love watching the simpsons. I never thought about it being that educational though.

    April 9, 2007 at 3:58 pm
    (2) LRKB says:

    I’ve been watching the Simpsons ever since my family and I moved to Maryland. We watch the reruns of the show each night before we have dinner during the week. We love the new episodes they have of the show on Sunday nights, too. They should keep it up!

    April 9, 2007 at 5:21 pm
    (3) aloyisus says:

    really enjoyed your examples. : )

    April 9, 2007 at 6:30 pm
    (4) Jules says:

    I’ve always believed Homer Simpson to be the cleverest creation on TV. You’ve proved my theory. Don’t forget “Marge, it takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen.” :)

    April 10, 2007 at 9:28 am
    (5) T says:

    …nail of head…

    Go Homer!

    April 10, 2007 at 9:28 am
    (6) T says:

    D’oh! Nail ON head…

    April 10, 2007 at 2:37 pm
    (7) Mike b says:

    Why can’t you love the lie Lisa? Love the Lie!!!!!

    April 11, 2007 at 9:25 am
    (8) M says:

    My friend Rick points out that the language of Plutarch was Greek not Latin. As much as we love Lisa, she’s not always right.

    April 11, 2007 at 9:46 am
    (9) erindreg says:

    Awesome! Now I have another excuse for watching the Simpson’s!

    April 11, 2007 at 9:47 am
    (10) erindreg says:

    Oops. I mean Simpsons. What an embarassing thing to do on a grammar website.

    April 12, 2007 at 11:27 am
    (11) Simon says:

    Ummm …. what apostrophe? Do you mean exclamation mark by any chance?

    April 12, 2007 at 1:28 pm
    (12) grammar says:

    Simon–If you have a chance to check our glossary, you’ll find that “apostrophe” has a second meaning: a rhetorical term for “breaking off discourse to address some absent person or thing, some abstract quality, an inanimate object, or a nonexistent character.” By addressing the TV, Homer is employing the device of apostrophe.

    October 2, 2008 at 5:33 pm
    (13) WC says:

    McCain shoulda pick Homer as his VP to talk about the benefits of nuclear energy .

    October 5, 2008 at 2:02 pm
    (14) Al says:

    Well, who do you want for president; Lenny or Carl?

    October 6, 2008 at 1:04 am
    (15) Riggs says:

    I’d vote Carl. Springfield seems to prefer him and assumes he’s smarter. And, he’d have the minority vote covered too! Carl Carlson & Homer Simpson – 2008!

    October 6, 2008 at 2:26 am
    (16) Dot says:

    I’m quite fond of Homer’s spelling.

    “”I am so smart, I am so smart, s-m-r-t….I mean s-m-A-r-t.”

    October 6, 2008 at 11:49 am
    (17) Adam says:

    Matt Groening’s crowning glory was, is, and will always be (until he comes up with something even more clever…) Futurama. Seriously, all you Simpsons fans out there, go watch Futurama, and love the adventures of Phillip Fry of the 20th Century in New New York. Speaking as a convert, Futurama is much more enjoyable, the more because it hasn’t been on forever and ever, and had such a short run. It never got stale.

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