Is 'cringe' an adjective?

“I hated that movie. The love scene was so cringe.”

Suddenly, this use of “cringe” seems to be everywhere. And some quasi-scientific evidence shows it’s on the rise.

According to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which lets you search for words and terms in a database of published sources then charts the words’ use over time, “cringe” appeared in about 0.000013% of published works in the mid-1970s. By 2017, “cringe” was showing up in about 0.0001% of published writing in the database — a nearly eightfold increase.

These numbers tell us only that “cringe” is being used more often, not how it’s being used. So from these numbers alone, we can’t tell whether this uptick comes from people using “cringe” in the traditional way, as a verb, for example describing characters in horror novels who “cringe” in fear. But if we tweak our search term we can learn more.

In the phrase “so cringe,” it’s likely that “cringe” is being used not as a verb but as an adjective. We know this because “so” is an intensifier of adjectives: so nice, so true, so small, so bright.

I searched Ngram Viewer for “so cringe.” No surprise: The phrase is extremely rare in published writing, appearing in just 0.00000007% of published works in the database in 2017. But compared to 50 years ago, that’s a landslide. In the mid-1970s, “so cringe” showed up in 0% of the publications in the database. It didn’t exist.

That’s Exhibit A that the verb “cringe” is being adopted as an adjective.

Exhibit B: the emergence of the term “cringe comedy” to describe shows like “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” that make viewers laugh by making them squirm. Wikipedia even has an entry for “cringe comedy.” I don’t recall people using that language to describe the awkward hilarity in “The Bob Newhart Show” or “All in the Family.”

Exhibit C (and this is the real hallmark of a language shift): the backlash. Whenever a new English usage gains popularity, people push back, as evidenced by this February 2022 post on Reddit.

“Cringe is a VERB,” an anonymous user insisted. “It’s something you DO: ‘I cringe at the thought’; ‘I am cringing just thinking about it’; ‘he cringed so much he imploded.’… Cringe is NOT an adjective, so saying ‘that is so cringe’ or ‘that’s the most cringe thing ever’ is objectively incorrect. … It’s like pointing at something funny and saying, ‘That is so laugh!’ What people mean when they use ‘cringe’ as an adjective is ‘cringe-worthy’ or ‘cringe-inducing.’”

Was anonymous right? Yes and no. "Cringe" is gaining acceptance as an adjective, so you can use it if you don't mind making others cringe. Here, in my recent column, I explain why.

Tags: , , ,