Category Archives: neologism

“Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.”

First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!

One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a  noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)

You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.

And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….

Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)

Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?

So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.

Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.

All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?

Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.

What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.

Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.

The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.

Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)

So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.

Welcome, all!

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is

“As a kid growing up with split parents…”

Usually I tease you, gentle reader, with the ellipsis in a post title: “wait till you read the rest!” I implicitly promise.

This time the three dots are all I have; they end what I wrote down on a back page of my gradebook. The rest of the sentence was, presumably, okay, so I felt no need to preserve it for the ages.

The word choice in question is certainly let’s-say unorthodox: on its face, the phrase invites us to picture two adults whose bodies have been cleft in twain—producing four half-parents. Or perhaps the individuals are only partly split, like strands of hair with split ends. This is a funny picture, a moment of laughter the reader does want to preserve for the ages. A cartoonist could draw it.

But any reader, including this willfully obtuse professor (“It’s my job to misunderstand you if I can!”), knows exactly what my student meant: while she was growing up, her parents did not cohabitate. Part of the time they may have been only separated; in all probability they eventually divorced. If when they called it quits one even left town—and if they passed the child back and forth but never themselves sat down together, talked in a friendly way, got together with their offspring for a holiday or snack or college visit—then they completely split up. My student could have referred to this as a “split household,” or could have said “as a kid growing up with parents who had split up…,” both more orthodox ways of saying that.

(I could quibble with the “growing up with,” suggesting that it might be taken to mean the parents were growing up along with the kid, but I don’t choose to quibble with it. The rest of the words are more worthy of remark—I want to focus on the main feature.)

“Split parents” is so efficient: at once communicative not only of their physical and marital situation but also of a certain forlornness, wrongness, that the child must have felt. It is also to-the-point, concise. From the writer’s point of view it keeps the emphasis of the essay where it belongs, too: on the “kid.” Trying to be more factually precise or verbally conventional would have taken more time, more space, and more care than the bald fact merited; she was writing about herself, not about them.

I don’t think my student spent much time (if any) on the phrasing of her idea; I think she put it down straight from her head. But I think she said what she meant.

So I think this “error” must be let stand, especially in a sentence that also refers to a “kid”: that is, in a sentence that is generally informal in tone and diction.

Sometimes you have to let them be poets, even if that isn’t their intention. Sometimes their “error” invites you to take a fresh look at the language, and at the reality they are offering to share. Sometimes you teach, and sometimes you learn.

A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!


“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him…”

You may think at first that my student was writing about Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, but the character-name “Orinso” suggests something more in the soap-opera line…

All right, yes: she was writing about Twelfth Night.  And I’m willing to assume, because the other names are correct, that “Orinso” is merely an o’typo—although that play has been through a number of strange variations at the hands of students, including one who seems to have thought it was an episode from The Morte d’Arthur.

The student error this sentence really reminds me of is a lovely misuse of the word “gander” as a transitive verb—I invite you to read my discussion of it, which may persuade you, as it has persuaded me, to adopt the error as part of your own colorful verbal armory.

I think I would have liked the sentence here better if it had ended after the ninth word: “Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia.” “Swoon” can be a noun (“a partial or total loss of consciousness…a state of bewilderment or ecstasy…a state of suspended animation,” says Webster) or a verb (“to faint…to become enraptured…to float or fade”). But, as Webster assures us, “swoon” is an INtransitive verb; that is, it takes no object. I suppose a writer could get away with writing “She swooned a swoon of joy,” but I can’t think of anything else one could swoon. Still, picturing Cesario/Viola trying to swoon Olivia is rather charming; perhaps it would involve putting a swooning spell on her? In my student’s mind, perhaps there could have been a vision of the comely Viola-in-Cesario-disguise standing before an Olivia fainting with rapture. I’d be willing to buy that as an explanation for the first nine words.

But she goes on. “To swoon Olivia to like him”? What is in her mind? Does she mean Cesario is to try to put a spell on Olivia to like Orinso? (Really, I have to apologize. I should be calling him “Orsino,” since I have confessed that I believe “Orinso” was bad typing rather than bad thinking—but I’m really, really getting a kick out of pretending Shakespeare named a character “Orinso.”) Anyway, Cesario trying to put a spell on Olivia to like him: could that be the intention?

No way of knowing. And of course there’s a little more. Here’s the whole sentence:

“Orinso asks Viola (Cesario) to try to swoon Olivia to like him and that’s when it really starts.”

Is this statement a companion piece to another, long-ago, student’s comment that “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble”? So young they are, and so jaded.

Does she mean that the play really starts when Orinso makes this difficult request of Viola? Or does she mean the attraction of Olivia to Viola? or the fun starts? or the trouble? Well, something really starts, anyway.

Let it be a lesson to us all. When we try to swoon people into doing things, we start something. And there’s no predicting how it will all turn out.

Happy New Year!

“These were pure animal survival instinks.”

Do I have, at last, a student who does form mental pictures when she hears a word? —because surely the idea of “animal survival instinks” is vivid in the mind of someone who has been confronted by, or fears being confronted by, a cornered skunk.

The actress in the production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play A Picasso (opening tomorrow night under my direction) was late to rehearsal one evening last week. She explained that her charming and generally nonconfrontational dog, Emma, had had a skunk encounter, necessitating emergency baths. Immediately an intense conversation ensued between my actress and my actor, whose own dogs have had their share of skunky set-tos: is a tomato-juice bath the best remedy, or does it merely mingle the smell of skunk with the tang of tomato? Are herbal treatments better? Where have skunk meetings taken place? Whose dogs are smarter/braver/more fastidious? …and of course on into dog stories. I have no dogs but do enjoy dog stories. AND I really like skunks.…Supreme effort of three wills was necessary to bring us back to rehearsal mode.

I happened on a skunk nest (nest? is there another word?) on my way to pick up a pizza one night. Mama and four kits, curled up together in a hollow beside the walkway, a bit under a small shrub. They were simply adorable. Luckily for me, I frequently sing or hum under my breath while walking. People may find me strange, but skunks hear me coming and so are never surprised by me. We gave each other a cautiously amiable look, and then I walked on to the pizza place (and returned by a different route: why tempt fate?). Clearly she felt no threat to the survival of her kits or herself, so she had no need of instinks with me. But if I had been a curious, bouncy dog, her survival instinks would surely have been deployed.

I like to think my student thought of skunks the first time she heard someone refer to “animal instincts” or “survival instincts,” and came up with an appropriate spelling, almost a poetic one. (My friend Philip would call that an “eggcorn,” I believe.)

There’s always the possibility that she was listening to a speaker who didn’t take care to pronounce all his consonants, or that she had never heard or seen the word “instincts,” and she simply assumed the term was spelled the way she thought she heard it—no mental pictures involved at all. That’s a sad thought.

It’s a chancy passage from the ear to the brain and back down out the mouth or typing fingers. If we don’t have enough signposts installed along the way, the word, and consequently the thought, can stumble off the path and wind up at a surprising place that never was the destination—but may seem to be. My student may have intended a simple behavioral observation, but where she wound up was a playground for me!

I have a dear friend who thinks those creepy shiny pincery-looking bugs, earwigs, are called Airwicks. None of my students says “all of a sudden”: they all think the expression is “all the sudden.” Being widely read and hanging around with people who speak with some care are the only defenses against making hundreds of such false assumptions and subsequent errors, living in worlds full of animals with instinks and bugs that are air-fresheners.

I guess if you have one, it would be nice to have the other….

“Medea is exiled from not only the land but from her motherhood and spousal hood.”

I used to really have a fit if I saw “not only” but didn’t see “but also” in the same sentence. I don’t think I’ve mellowed over the years; I think I’ve just decided to fight fewer battles.

And since I’m not going to fight that one here, I have to confess I have a certain delighted admiration for this writer.

She’s right that Medea is utterly alone (except of course for that grandfather who shows up in the Chariot of the Sun in the nick of time). To win Jason she stole from the gods and from her country (enabling him by her magic and foresight to win the Golden Fleece), outraged and humiliated her father (King of Colchis), slew and dismembered her brother, and tricked the daughters of Pelias into killing their father (they thought they were making him young again). So she really couldn’t “go home again” after settling down in Corinth with Jason and bearing two children. As Euripedes shows, she’s a misfit in Corinth: wrong religion, wrong language, wrong relatives, and alas, not nearly as pretty or useful to the ambitious Jason as Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Eager to be rid of the encumbrance Medea represented, Jason went ahead and married Glauce and had Medea exiled (planning to keep the children, though). She had twenty-four hours to leave town, more or less.

Exiled, you see, from the land, from her motherhood, and from her…what is the word? I’m so proud that my student sought a noun for the sake of the series of things Medea was exiled from. And I don’t blame her (the writer) for being at a loss for the right noun, either. After all, Medea wasn’t quite exiled from her husband, since he had moved on and also since he hadn’t been very attentive even before he decided to change wives (except, I guess, for making the two kids). In the same way she wasn’t exiled from her spouse, or even from her marriage. But she was exiled from the state of being somebody’s wife. “Spousal hood” is pretty resourceful. “Spousehood” is listed as a word in several online dictionaries, but not in my print Webster’s; and it probably wasn’t in my student’s lexicon. She just did her best. I like “spousalhood” partly because it has the same dactyllic rhythm of “motherhood” and a fluidity of sound much more pleasant than the spondee-with-a-huh-in-the-middle of “spousehood.” I’m not sure why she let “hood” break off on its own, since it was perfectly well attached in “motherhood.” It does emphasize the coinage. I’m sure my student didn’t have headwear in mind.

I kind of wish that instead of “the land” she had written “her neighborhood.” Not only from the neighborhood but from her motherhood and spousalhood. Has a je ne sais quoi about it, no?

For those who don’t have time to reread Euripedes or the other variants on this story: Medea sent the two kids to Glauce to present her with gifts: a gown and a crown. Glauce couldn’t wait to put them on, and when she did, the poison smeared inside them burned her alive, as it did Creon, who had rushed to her side and got some poison on him. Meanwhile, the boys had returned home to Mater, who killed them like little sacrifices rather than have them endure the shame of complicity in Glauce’s death. And then, with the soldiers of Corinth approaching, Medea hopped into the flying chariot of Helios, her grandfather, and flew the Corinthian coop.

As for Jason, that rotter, when he wandered melancholy and alone down to the harbor to look upon his good ship Argos and reminisce about past happiness, a piece of the Argos broke off (the figurehead, maybe) and hit him on the head—an inglorious ending for a fickle user and would-be hero.

I’ve gone into this story because I have another amazing sentence about it, and I’ll be presenting that shortly.

Meanwhile, please do enjoy the invention of “spousal hood,” child of necessity.

Medea sends the children with gifts for Glauce. Glauce will not live to enjoy spousal hood!Source:

Medea sends the children with gifts for Glauce. Glauce will not live to enjoy spousal hood!



“What if the motif behind the murder was bettering off the victim?”

This student is considering the “punishment” handed down to the killer-father, and trying to figure out what the judge might have been thinking.

We can see the problem with motif/motive. We might speculate that the student was suggesting a pattern of behavior in the father that preceded and included the murder, a recurrent concern or desire that had motivated other (less lethal) actions in the past. More likely, alas, is that the student either didn’t know how to spell “motive” or typed “motiv” and was “helped” by Spellcheck to choose “motif” as the correction. The error is merely a spelling mistake, or perhaps a bad word choice.

But the real interest in his sentence is the new phrase “bettering off.” In the case in question, evidently the father felt his son would be “better off dead” than addicted to drugs. “Better off” is a common phrase modifying so many choosers: You’d be better off saving your money. You’ll be better off without him. You’d be better off with a college degree. Etc.

In the sentence the student had already begun, though, “better off” doesn’t come in naturally. Unwilling to start the sentence over, he plows on, determined (like Cinderella’s sisters contemplating the glass slipper) to “make it fit.” He creates a verb, “to better off,” and then uses its present-participial form as a gerund. Why not?

With this new verb much becomes possible. Its superficial resemblance to “butter one up” is one step toward normalization. “When he gives you presents you think he’s trying to better you off, but he’s only buttering you up.”

This verb is going to enter my lexicon, as “to unfair against” already has. It’s a living language, after all, right?

“Winthrop and the Puritans had heavy-set beliefs.”

Can’t you just see them, those beliefs? Strutting ponderously along, thick of neck and thigh, arms straining the sleeves, hostility in the eye, belly perhaps leading the way?

To the modern American mind, the Puritans do seem domineering and dogmatic (one of my students described Jonathan Edwards as a “thug”). Oppressed themselves, they were quick to oppress others whose beliefs differed from theirs. Anxious for the salvation of souls and dedicated to the idea of community, they extended their spiritual and behavioral vigilance from the meeting house to the public square, thence into the home, the bedroom, and (alas) the barnyard. John Winthrop memorably considered the Massachusetts Bay Colony a “city on a hill,” not the “shining” one politicians mistakenly refer to but an enterprise that could not be hidden and that would be judged, for better or worse, as an example of the beliefs and practices of its inhabitants. These are onerous burdens—the individual soul and the collective example.

I think my student meant to say that the Puritans were set in their beliefs, strict in obedience, stern in judgment, swift in punishment of those who strayed. In the name of Christ’s mercy, they stressed God’s justice, and they defined God’s justice as a terrifying thing. Any deviation from their ideas of scripture was a threat to the whole structure of their lives and beliefs and therefore could not be tolerated. To express the extent to which they were “set,” he may have looked for an adverb. But what adverb would do the job? “Fairly” set? “Pretty,” “very,” “very very,” “extremely”? All of these will do, in a generic sense, to place “set” on some sort of gradient; but none actually characterizes it. Adding “heavy” isn’t an unreasonable idea.

We all have our beliefs, and at a certain point we decide those beliefs are “set,” not to change easily. But for most of us the beliefs sit within us fairly comfortably, coming forward when needed but not intruding otherwise, content to steer one life rather than trying to jump out and boss others around. But for the Puritans, their beliefs and their lives were the same thing, and orthodoxy of belief was essential for communal survival. Those beliefs must have sat in the soul as firmly as lead blocks, heavy as can be, set in stone; and they did stretch out a fist as beefy as a pulpit-pounding preacher’s at every opportunity, emphatically, energetically, steely of purpose and iron of will. Those beliefs weren’t just “set”; they were set very heavy indeed. “Heavy-set,” in fact.

Of course there’s the very good chance that my student had none of this in mind. He may simply have heard the expression “heavy-set” so often that the two words had become conjoined, so that where one went the other must also go. He didn’t even have to think about it: “set”meant “heavy-set.”

But I don’t want to think about this possibility, because, like so many strange student wordings, this one has become more and more appealing to me the more I’ve thought about it. I like the picture of a belief ponderously strutting, massive and implacable, inhabiting space with a weighty presence. “Heavy-set” does not, after all, mean “fat”: there’s something more foundational about it, more a matter of the basic being than of any additions to it. Yes, I have to admit I like the term.

I don’t like it in experience, though. Today, as back in the Puritan times, there are plenty of people walking around with their heavy-set beliefs stalking along beside them, ready to pound those who differ. Well, at least I have a word for them.


“She found her place in the social higher arky.”

Good for her!

Pre-Spellcheck, pre-Autocorrect, my student was working with a concept but evidently had never seen the word written down.

Well, actually, she may have seen it written down. In grad school I had a fellow student who presented a seminar paper that was full of the expression “I’ll bite.” At least that’s what I heard. I wondered why he was repeatedly inserting a jokey aside (isn’t it what we say when asked a riddle that we know has a humorous answer we can’t immediately come up with?) into a paper that was in every other way definitely boring and probably scholarly. Ever nosey, I asked him afterwards if I could see his paper. The word was “albeit”—of course, how scholarly an adverb! But he had evidently never connected the pronunciation “all-BE-it” with that German-looking collection of letters; and, although he had probably never heard another academic speaker say “I’ll bite”—or “Ah’ll Bite,” which was actually how he sounded—he did his best. Similarly, my student may have seen the word “hierarchy” without associating it with the term she kept hearing in various contexts, “higher arky.” She may have thought that word “hierarchy” was pronounced “hair-archie,” or “air-archy,” for all I know. Or “Here, Archie!” as Betty might have said to invite that merry lad to hit the floor with her at the sock hop.

I wonder what she thought an arky looked like, and then what would make a higher one. Is it anything like Noah’s ark, but cuter or smaller?

At least that would give the word the biblical spin it deserves.

I’ve been using “hierarchy” for a really long time, but it’s only this morning that I learned its derivation and full list of meanings. I have lived my life in hierarchical structures. I grade according to a hierarchy of skills and competencies. I know that way back when it had to do with holiness and with ruling, because I learned all my Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes faithfully back in high school. and that’s where Webster’s begins too.

Its first meaning is “a division of angels.” That great list in, or amplified from, the Bible—Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim—is called the “choirs of angels” and has been divided further by the Fathers of the RC Church into three “hierarchies.” I guess if you’re going to buy into the Great Chain of Being, you have to account for all the links.

The second meaning Webster’s gives is “a ruling body of clergy organized into orders or ranks each subordinate to the one above it.” Great Chain continues.

The third meaning moves into the secular: “a body of persons in authority.” Presumably they too are ranked.

The fourth meaning allows the abstract or figurative: “a graded or ranked series,” such as spiritual virtues or the linked actions of a machine. Here is where a social hierarchy would fit, presumably, since social orders, while definitely ranked, don’t usually have official officers for each tier.

I’m touched that my student believes a person could “find her [or his] place” in a social hierarchy, though, or in any hierarchy for that matter. Everything I know about hierarchies suggests that the hierarchy does its own placement of newcomers.

An arky, on the other hand, might be discovered and selected by some young woman wandering by (I’m seeing Little Red Riding Hood, Gretel, or another of the traveling girls of fairy tales). Picture little Noah’s Arks, stacked one on top of another according to size, with the tiniest on top. Then picture LRRH—or Alice!— looking up at the tower of arks and choosing the one that seems most attractive, or most accommodating, to her. She proceeds to clamber up to “her place.”

Actually this does seem more American, somehow: the individual spotting the perfect place and then, dammit, going there!

More fun than a barrel of angels!

This single ark seems to have a higher arky of its own, with all those levels…
(image from

“The fans are die-hearted for their team.”

So again we encounter confusion between “heart” and “hard.” What do these students do with the expression “hard-hearted,” I wonder?

I suppose when a team does really, really badly, or when a sure win suddenly turns to a last-second loss, the fans’ hearts die a bit. As they leave the stadium, do they feel die-hearted? Or maybe once their hearts die they are dead-hearted? It’s true that I have left my share of football, basketball, and soccer games amid a crowd that felt like a funeral procession….

Of course I knew what he meant. He was referring—and doing so admiringly, I might add, which is why I’m sure—to die-hard fans, those whose faith in the team dies hard (doesn’t want to die), those who cheer and sing lustily to encourage the guy who gets the ball at his feet deep in his own territory with a good fifty yards to travel through a rapidly advancing defensive line and three seconds on the clock; or yell and and wave their pennants for the last man at bat facing a 3-2 count and a score of 12-0 in the bottom of the ninth. And then go home yelling “We’ll get ’em next time!” A die-hard fan doesn’t give up. Webster’s identifies the word more with political or social determination, a refusal to yield to change; but of course sports fans can be just as stubborn, and just as ferocious.

Those die-hearted fans, though, would be just the opposite, I guess. Their faith quails as soon as the tide turns against the team; they can feel the old pump begin to stutter and flutter when a goal is scored against them in the first quarter. They do not wave their pennants, they do not cheer: they sink onto the bench and put their heads in their hands, or else they begin the long sad trek to the parking lot.

I like this new term. I don’t know whether I’d prefer the company of a die-hard or a die-heart—both seem disinclined to consider reality—I guess it would depend on what they’re die-hard or die-hearted about. I just like imagining saying to some pessimist, “Oh, don’t be such a die-heart!” If I pronounce my words carefully enough (as the speakers my students have heard evidently did not), I might make a point!