“I swam until my fingers were pruned.”

We’ve all had it, the certainty that the word we wanted EXISTED, but we couldn’t think of it. Maybe that’s what makes a writer reach for a known word and press it into service as a different part of speech, or in a new context. Shakespeare himself did that, and in so doing enlarged not only the English language but also its potential for further growth. (Alexander Haig did it, too, proving it’s not always a step forward…)

I LOVE “my fingers were pruned,” and in fact I have used the expression from time to time since my student wrote it. I knew what she meant! But in the case of this word, before the image of prune-y skin as a consequence of overlong immersion in water comes the grotesque picture of finger ends dripping blood after being subjected to the ministrations of a hedge-clipper.

Here are a few other examples of this lexicographical desperation:

“Zeus made love to her in the form of a bolt of lightening, and she crisped away.”

“People should not wear discriminatory T-shirts.”

“The police wanted Duncan on several counts of illegal antiquing.” No, Duncan was not a shopper or shop-lifter, nor a decorator creating faux finishes; he was a fence for stolen antiques. But can’t you just see him?

“Even though he broke the law, he did not have mal intentions.” Why can’t a prefix become a word?

Or why can’t it be the basis for a new word, such as Mr. Rochester’s attempted “maligamy” when he tried, criminally, to marry Jane Eyre while still married to Bertha….Better, perhaps, if, like couples in other cultures, “they were arranged in marriage.”

“The laws should be uniformed throughout the nation.” This, from a paper on inconsistent state laws regarding the age of consent–no police intended, since the usage is a passive verb, not an adjective.

“She had a long carriage period and a difficult labor.” At last a term for those nine months!

Finally, “Recently an elderly man was found guilty of murder of his deteriorating wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.” I know that disease. This is a good term.


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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