I copied only this word, no context.

Isn’t it lovely?

Sometimes a close and chronically critical listener will hear some strange oral alterations to words, from the incidental and minimal all the way to the spectacular and the hilarious. One of the minimal/incidental types is the insertion of little schwas, little unaccented and phonetically neutral sounds, between syllables, usually in words with consonant clusters (“atheletics,” for instance–the schwa properly typed looks like an upside-down e). Here’s a quickie Wikipedia definition, by way of which I have suddenly learned that the word originates in Hebrew! How irrelevant to my point, but how interesting!

I imagine my student meant “ancestry,” pure and simple, and was merely writing it down in the way she had heard it pronounced, possibly by her family. I can insert a schwa in this word without much effort and make it seem pretty natural, although the sound mine makes is closer to an “e” than an “o”: ancestery.

Did she mean more? The disillusioned voice of too many years of teaching first-year writers suggests the answer is “no.”

But I’ve just spent hours sitting at holiday tables listening to, and recounting, family stories—haven’t we all? This is one of the holiday rituals that really strengthen bonds while delighting the older family members and making the younger  ones squirm with impatience or, if they’ve brought special friends to the feast, embarrassment. Once they’ve grown up in their turn, those younger ones will find themselves wishing they’d listened a little more closely.

Anyway, speaking as a listener-to and a teller-of the old family stories, I’m fully aware that they are mixtures of fact and fancy so closely and permanently blended as to be properly described as literature, stories with both denotative and connotative significance—stories that, regardless of their factual accuracy, resonate with a deep human truth. I have probably added a few of those “fancy” elements myself, especially where the straight reporter in me noticed a missing piece of the narrative line and almost by instinct filled it smoothly in with a detail or explanation that probably was what happened, or most likely was why this happened…or just made everything more interesting. That’s the point of storytelling, after all, isn’t it?

What are the resulting narratives called? I can’t think of a better term than ancestory, and I hope you and yours have plenty of them!


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

4 responses to ““ancestory”

  • yearstricken

    I love this word and may borrow it from time to time.It makes a very nice Christmas gift. Thank you. Little moths of forgetfulness can eat through the stories of our ancestors and ourselves, leaving gaps and holes that need our mending. A little here and a little there and then they are good as new.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Phil has put a bunch of them on his blog. The assumption had been that what we put “out there” will last forever, for our grandchildren, etc. However, I’m beginning to think we need to print them all our, for our “prosterity.” Now, there’s a word for you. In an early play I’d written, I had used the word “posterity.” The actor who needed to say it was puzzled and said, instead, “prosperity.” So I explained what posterity was and why prosperity wasn’t appropriate at all in that sentence. Comes the performance and out of his mouth pops “prosterity.” Now I know enough to change the word in the text immediately.

  • Philip Schaefer

    An eggcorn. A poem in miniature.

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