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A Deceptively Small Oral History of ‘Shrinkage,’ the Perfect Seinfeldian Word

Before ‘Seinfeld,’ there was no English word to describe what happens to your junk in cold air and water. But after it first appeared in a 1994 episode, the world couldn’t get enough of that frightened turtle

It’s the week of Fourth of July. And while we appreciate you being here, we really hope it’s from some stretch of sand or some body of water relaxing enough that your problems can be put on the same kind of ice as the booze in the cooler next to you. If not, throw on your shades anyway, and join us for our weeklong package, “Life’s a Beach,” a celebration of all things sand, sun and summer. Of course, if you’re already on vacation, you’re welcome, too — just be sure to reapply another layer of sunscreen, as these pieces burn bright. Read all of them here.

“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”

That was George Costanza’s panicked defense of his underwhelming penis size after Jerry’s girlfriend walked in on him naked in the Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons.” In the next scene, George recounts this to Jerry, explaining that the pool’s cold water had affected his appearance. Then, Jerry replies by saying, “You mean… shrinkage?” “Yes!” George snaps back, “Significant shrinkage!”

Just about every guy has experienced the phenomenon of shrinkage — be it after a swim or because of cold weather — but it wasn’t until May 12, 1994 that they had a single, perfect word to describe it. “You mean… shrinkage?” is all Jerry needed to say, and instantly, every guy understood what was going on. 

While a good number of words in the American lexicon can be traced to Seinfeld’s popularity, “shrinkage” may be the best example of a truly Seinfeld-ian word, if only because no other word can substitute (not to take anything away from “yada yada yada,” but in most situations, “blah blah blah” would be about as effective). With “shrinkage,” nothing in the thesaurus even comes close — there isn’t even medical terminology to describe it. It’s simply a perfect word. 

Credit for the phrase belongs to Peter Mehlman, the same Seinfeld writer who gave us “yada yada yada” in Season Eight, “spongeworthy” in Season Seven and “double-dipper” in Season Four. Mehlman began writing for Seinfeld early on, starting with “The Apartment” in Season Two, and ending with “The Maid” in the final season. For the “The Hamptons,” which he co-wrote with Carol Leifer during Season Five, Mehlman says that the scene with George being seen naked wasn’t in his original plans. But an off-hand conversation with Larry David suddenly spawned the word “shrinkage,” which gave the episode its most memorable moment and armed English-speaking men around the world with a way to describe an age-old problem. 

Here’s how it all went down… 

Peter Mehlman, Seinfeld writer, co-writer of “The Hamptons”: The idea for this episode began with the part about George’s girlfriend going topless on the beach, and everyone else getting to see her like that before George did. Something like that kind of happened to me once, when my friend and I were sharing a house in the Hamptons one summer. My friend’s longtime girlfriend went topless on the beach, and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, he worked so hard to get this, and I’m getting it for free.” That’s where the episode originated, and from that, I loved the idea of setting the whole episode at a house in the Hamptons. 

It made sense to have another character invite Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer out there, and I loved the character Carol — who was always telling everyone, “You gotta see the baby” — so I had her and her husband invite them out to see their new baby. With that, I thought how funny it would be if they had a really ugly baby, because, well, not all babies are cute. 

The ugly baby — and the pediatrician who mysteriously calls both the baby and Elaine “breathtaking” — was going to be Elaine’s story. Kramer stealing lobsters gave Michael [Richards] an opportunity to do some great physical stuff on the beach. And, as for George and Jerry, the original story was that, since Jerry had seen George’s girlfriend topless, George was going to try to catch Jerry’s girlfriend topless. 

I provided most of the story elements for the episode, and Carol Leifer came up with a lot of really funny lines. When Elaine comes out with the big hat on and Jerry says, “And then came Maude!” — that was Carol. At a certain point though, I was struggling with the script; the second act just wasn’t coming together. So I was talking to Larry, and he suggested, “What if — instead of George getting to see Jerry’s girlfriend topless as a quid pro quo — what if she ends up seeing George naked and he’s just come out of the pool?” 

So I said to Larry, “Oh, you mean, like, he’s got shrinkage?” And Larry, with his fireproof comedic brilliance, says to me, “Yes, shrinkage, and use that word a lot.”

That helped the episode, but I still struggled a bit after that. I knew I wanted George’s girlfriend to leave in the middle of the night because that always seemed to happen whenever me and some friends went out to the Hamptons — someone was always leaving angry in the middle of the night. The episode didn’t really come together until Larry and Jerry did their pass on the script. They’re the ones who added the big dinner scene, where George is worried that Jerry’s girlfriend is telling his girlfriend about his penis. That scene has a lot going on, and it ended up being pivotal to the story.

What I like most about the episode is that it really came off like a French farce, with people going in and out of rooms. It was a lot of fun, particularly the scene where George, Jerry and Elaine are talking about shrinkage, and they ask Elaine if women know about it. I remember thinking that that scene was about as perfect a scene as we could get. 

Then, of course, “shrinkage” ended up taking off as a word. I’d had a little bit of that the previous season with “double-dipper,” but I never thought that was some masterstroke — it seemed obvious to me. “Shrinkage,” on the other hand, that didn’t seem so obvious, and it was something no one ever really spoke about, so it was particularly gratifying to see that take off. 

Alex Shteynshlyuger, Director of Urology at New York Urology Specialists: There isn’t really a word for “shrinkage” besides “shrinkage.” There isn’t even medical terminology to describe it. A urologist would simply call it “the skin contracting,” because all it is is the muscle fibers below the skin contracting to preserve heat. Or we might call it “shrinkage” ourselves because it’s a perfect word, and it’s a great way to describe a sensitive topic.

Mark Peters, etymologist and author of Bullshit: A Lexicon: One way to look at the success of “shrinkage” is with the late linguist Allan Metcalf’s FUDGE scale, which is a tool for evaluating potential word success using these factors: frequency of use, unobtrusiveness, diversity of users, generation of forms and meanings and endurance of the concept. 

Thanks to the monstrous popularity of Seinfeld, the word was frequently used upon arrival. And since shrinkage was an existing word with a new meaning, it was as unobtrusive as a houseplant. But the term really scores in the last category: “endurance of the concept.” As long as penis-havers have gone swimming, dongs have shrunk — and they always will.

Mehlman: I knew shrinkage was funny, but you never really know about these things land. That was one thing I learned from that episode — that I never know what people are going to find really funny. Sometimes I think something is hilarious — like when Kramer calls Jerry an “anti-dentite” in the yada yada yada episode; I thought “anti-dentite” was going to be a big thing — and it doesn’t really work that well. Other times, I think something is okay, and it ends up being a hit. It’s all a crazy science that I still don’t really understand.