“He went into convolutions.”

No, this is not a description of Mitt Romney’s recent explanation of his relationship with Bain Capital.

It’s a student summarizing the sorry facts in a case I sometimes ask my classes to write arguments about: a family who were devout members of the Church of Christ, Scientist, and had been arrested for manslaughter after their young son died of an ailment that could have been remedied easily by surgery. Do the parents’ religious rights trump the child’s right to medical care and the state’s interest in protecting the lives of its citizens? It’s an interesting conflict.

Students generally make some good points in discussing this topic, but they have a lot of trouble with describing the illness. I’ve written in earlier blogs about students’ difficulty with talking coherently about death; they also seem to run into trouble with various other physical situations.

In this case, the boy died of the consequences of a bowel obstruction. I haven’t assigned the topic in a while because I can no longer bear the suspense wondering which variation of this condition I’m going to encounter next: “bowel destruction”? “bowl obstruction”? (The fact that they have the specifics of the case, correctly spelled, on a sheet before them as they write justifies my unsympathetic reactions of hilarity, frustration, and exasperation!)

Anyway, the parents prayed over their little boy, and when their prayers seemed inadequate they called in elders from the church to pray with them. Every day the child’s condition worsened; and shortly before he died, he went into convulsions. Or, as my student imagines it, convolutions.

I have to jump in here and say that I haven’t assigned this case since the invention of AutoCorrect, so we have to accept these interesting variations as the students’ own.

Here’s Mr. Webster: “Convulsion: an abnormal violent and involuntary contraction or series of contractions of the muscles; an uncontrolled fit.” And here: “Convolution: a convoluted form or structure. Convoluted: rolled or wound together with one part upon another; folded in curved or tortuous windings.”

The words share little beyond “conv–ion” (also sharing it: convention, conviction, conversion, conversation, convocation—so what?), but Agatha Christie’s description of the convulsions that ensue from strychnine poisoning does seem to bring them together—the body arching almost into a hoop, rolled or wound together. In the situation my student is trying to describe, though, no strychnine is involved and “convolutions” is definitely not the right word, regardless of the question of whether the small intestine might legitimately be described as convoluted (it is folded back on itself in curved and tortuous—that is, “marked by repeated bends or turns,” nothing to do with pain—windings), but that’s the normal arrangement, not a pathology.

I think we have to rule out going into convolutions as a description of physical agony.

But it’s very handy for describing the behavior of politicians. Or, okay I admit it, professors.

I will stop with that, before I feel another convolution coming on.

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 ““He went into convolutions.”

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