Category Archives: neologism

“The thought of having to die fills him with hard ache.”

Not located in any particular organ, this “hard ache” fills the entire being of this poor soul.

I don’t think my student actually meant to measure degrees or kinds of aches; she probably thought she was using a term she had heard, and used, before. But I would be sympathetic to the idea that there are aches and then there are aches.

The boy I yearned for all through ninth and tenth grades caused me plenty of ache, because he never indicated the slightest ache, or even interest beyond the impersonal, in return. My suffering was punctuated by sharper pains and pangs—seeing him laughing with some pretty little thing he obviously “liked,” watching him dance with everyone but me at school dances, sitting right behind him in Hygiene and knowing full well that if I gave in to desire and extended my index finger far enough to actually touch him he would think I was crazy. But most of the time, my longing for him filled me with a steady ache that even at the time I kind of liked. That was a soft ache, maybe, or at least a sweet one. It came easily, too. Definitely not a hard ache.

I feel another kind of soft ache when I picture myself back in college, or in grad school, with the world all before me (like Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost) and the energy to take it on. I wish I could be her again, with all her hope and hunger.

I can see that the “him” of my student’s sentence isn’t feeling that kind of ache: knowing he has to die really, really hurts. He isn’t filled with a warm wash of wanting; for him, it’s solid steel pounding against the insides of his bones, his muscles, his skin, and hardening cement filling all his brain’s cortical corrugations. The pain is pitiless, unrelenting—hard. It might even be “hard” the way toil of body or intellect is hard: difficult to do, difficult to understand, difficult perhaps to justify.

I wish she had wanted me to read her sentence like that, instead of knowing that what she meant was “heartache”— painful and sad in its own right, but nowhere near the inexorable and inhuman experience “hard ache” conjures.

So far, this and yesterday’s are the only two Horrors I’ve gotten where matters of the heart and sorrow are concerned. I dread the future apparition of a “hard brake” that has nothing to do with panic stops on the road.… Meanwhile, I’d love to hear any other variations readers have encountered!


This student evidently never heard (even on an Oldies show) the lyric “How can you mend a broken heart?” Had he, he would have understood that if your heart is broken, at some prior moment something had to break your heart? How about “Don’t go breaking my heart”? (Perhaps he heard “Don’t go braking my heart”?) “Only love can break a heart”?

At any rate, “heartbreak” is the noun meaning the state of having a heart that has been broken. To get the noun right, you have to get the verb right. And if you get the right verb, how can you get the wrong noun?

I love the image of the broken heart. I have, on occasion, felt my heart breaking, physically snapping into pieces, leaving sharp shards in my chest for days or weeks to come, an emotional trauma that has real physical manifestations.

If my student was thinking in terms of images, then what he saw was a heart suddenly being brought to a stop, perhaps screaming as the brakes were applied. I like that image too, actually.

We talk about suspense as being “heart-stopping”; or at first sight of the one who will become the beloved we sing “Suddenly my heart stood still.” Of course both these examples assume that the heart starts up again, either once the suspense is resolved or when we become accustomed to having the beloved around. But what if the beloved has been around but is now walking out the door, or Kissing Another, or changing to “SINGLE” status on Facebook? That would stop the heart of the lover suddenly, and possibly permanently. “Put on the brakes” doesn’t necessarily mean “stop”; it might mean “slow down”—but in the case of an intense love affair, there is no such thing as slowing down. The heart races, or the heart brakes to a halt. Heartbrake must describe the feeling enshrined in so many old love songs, “Feel like I’m gonna die.”

In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” the main character suffers from a chronically weak heart. When news reaches them that her husband has been killed in a train accident, her sister and the family physician fear that she will die. But instead, she discovers an intoxicating sense of self, of freedom, and begins to imagine a future shaped by her own hands and desires instead of his. And then, suddenly, her husband walks through the door (he wasn’t even on the train!), and she drops dead. The physician erroneously attributes her death to joy at the sight of her husband suddenly restored to her. The reader knows it’s really heartbreak. Or, in this case, heartbrake.

“King Lear remorses…”

First of all, Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. You changed my life!

And now…

One of Shakespeare’s most far-reaching contributions to the English-speaking world was the vigorous stretching of the language. At least as far as written English goes, we can attribute to him numerous coinages and repurposings (although we cannot blame him for the verb “to repurpose”!) that enlarged the lexicon and made it more supple. Working with nuanced ideas by way of fresh images within the constraints of iambic pentameter is bound to stimulate verbal creativity. We can’t know how many of the words he introduced or used in new ways were already current in the spoken language, but the level of sophistication in his usage suggests that he was the prime mover at least most of the time.

So, to celebrate, I offer a verbal repurposing by one of my students.

It lacks true Shakespearean felicity, at least on the surface. Maybe beneath the surface, though?

“Remorse” is, as almost all of us know, a noun. It is not a verb. It comes from Latin via Middle French and then Middle English, and at base it means “the act of biting again.” Webster’s says when we use it we mean “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.”

It’s certainly true that Lear eventually does feel remorse: for valuing the wrong daughters at their word; for abnegating his humanity before abdicating his throne; for being stupid. His “remorse” seems particularly apt when we recall that he himself expressed his disappointment in his daughters as a kind of biting: “sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” he styled it, “to have a thankless child.” Two thankless children = two bites. Regan bites; Goneril bites again. King Lear has remorse.

For my student, though, Lear’s guilt is not a thing but a process: King Lear remorses. But in that structure, considering the word’s origins, wouldn’t we have to interpret the statement to mean that LEAR bites again? He doesn’t experience a thing, a re-biting; he bites.

This is not how my student used it; she wrote that he remorses over how badly things have turned out.

But if we do a little speculating, we might be able to make things come out right, after all:

Perhaps like Othello, Lear bites his own “nether lip.” Othello does it in anger (and possibly in frustration and anguish), and in fact the same phrase is used by other, later, writers to denote the same act and motive. (I have always liked this gesture, so suggestive of self-devouring—and Prof. Steve Cohen of Central Connecticut State University demonstrates with great clarity and persuasion the presence of a substantial pattern of images of devouring in Othello, in an article the draft of which he was kind enough to share with me a couple of months ago.) If Lear follows suit as he fumes over the consequences of his folly, we might very well say that he “remorses”!

Unorthodox use of language, but on Shakespeare’s birthday, who am I to complain about that?

“Emily’s father had pasted away.”

I can’t seem to get students to say “died.” Do they think it isn’t civilized?

They don’t go so far as to say “went to heaven” or “is with God,” but several have actually referred to literary characters as “crossing over.”

Most, though, say “passed away.” And when I say “say,” I use the term advisedly. Of those who say “passed away,” at least half write “past away.” In theory, the confusion is reasonable: what spoken difference is there, really, between “passed” and “past”? And once someone has passed away, that person clearly belongs to the past—all the good times are past because they have passed into history (the past). No matter how he has passed his time with pastimes, those times are past. (And yes, who can blame those students who spell “pastimes” “pass-times”?) The words must be easy to confuse, at least when spoken.

But surely, when we write we are not merely transcribing sounds we have heard; otherwise, the first half of this sentence could read “Wen oui rite wee are knot merely transcribing sounds we halve herd.” Somewhere our education must intervene—mustn’t it?—to tell us how to make correct choices as to how to represent those sounds.

Maybe that’s what happened to the student here, who was writing about Faulkner’s chilling, tender short story “A Rose for Emily.” By the time of the story Emily is dead at 74; but the narrator tells us the story of her life, including her three-day refusal as a young woman to give up the corpse of her father for burial, or even to acknowledge that he has died. The picture the narrator paints presents the father as haughty, powerful, and perhaps violent (he holds a horsewhip), dominating his daughter and driving off all her suitors as not good enough to marry into his family. A “crayon” (pastels) portrait of him presides over the sitting room of her house for as long as she lives, and over her coffin at her wake.

It’s hard to match up such a man with the verb “pass away,” with all its implied gentle subtlety: “storm out” or “confront God” might be closer to what he would do.

But my student seems to want to use “passed away” anyhow. And she seems to have begun it by writing “past.” Did she then have a visual flash of an “-ed” ending for the die verb, and tack “-ed” onto “past” just to be safe?

For whatever reason, that’s what she did, and not even Spell-check could save her, because “pasted” is a legitimate verb. The only problem is that it means “attached with paste or glue,” not “went by.”

And so for me, and for most readers I hope, Emily’s father was either putting up wallpaper with energy and perhaps enthusiasm (implied by “away”)—even though by the time of her death the wallpaper would be just as cracked and faded as the silk upholstery Faulkner describes—or madly “scrap-booking.” He has laid his whip on the settee, and any wayward paste won’t show on his white suit as his powerful fist plies the paste-brush.

Emily’s faithful “Negro servant” lets the mourners into her house and then leaves: he “walked right through the house and out the back and was not seen again,” passing through, passing on. Behind him, there the others are in my mind, Faulkner’s fatal trio: Miss Emily, passing with her shreds of dignity almost imperceptibly away; her reluctant lover Homer’s skeleton in an attitude of embrace, his flesh long past; and Mr. Grierson, pasting away at his scrap-book, memorializing a past time and way of life.

“Give just a little power and they go awire.”

Thoughts of the electrical grid flash through my mind!

We are familiar with adjectives and verbs that begin with the prefix a-. Naturally we have the ones that begin with the Latin-derived a- (or an-), meaning “non-“, or “lacking”: amoral, anaesthetic, amorphic, anaerobic.

In English we also use the prefix a- to mean “while,” “at,” or “of”: a-hunting, a-sea, Alain-a-Dale. Virtually invisible in the word because so commonly used: ahead, ago. On Tuesday a post on one of the blogs I enjoy, “Becoming Madame” (which you may visit via my blogroll), was an appreciation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and in the course of discussing its rich writing style Madame noted that she was unfamiliar with the word “agrope.” I offered this comment:

For “agrope,” I would suggest (I who am seeing the word out of context here) that it means “in the process of groping,” or “busy groping,” as when your head is spinning it is “aspin,” and when Froggy goes out he goes out “a-wooing.” A-hmm, a-hmm! I suspect it’s a collapse from “at” something, just as now we recognize as synonyms the phrase “at sea” and the word “asea.”

The English a- is best recognized if a hyphen is present, but the hyphen is not always present. My assumption was that Madame would have recognized the word immediately had Wharton written it as “a-grope.”

And with this student, my instinctive assumption was that he was referring to people going a-wire. That applies an English pattern to an unfamiliar term, and it’s also a natural pairing with “power.”

Then I read on to the next sentences, and discovered that my student was not talking about electric power and insulated wiring, but about kings and dictators. Give them just a little power (over people, over budgets, over the military, etc.), and they go awire.

Well, just what is “awire,” then? Searching my brain for associations in popular culture, I came relatively soon upon “A-Rod” and “J-Lo.” Applying that pattern led me to “A-wire.” So, if you haven’t been a-head of me all a-long, I”m sure you’re a-breast of me now: a-HA!

From A-wire, such a short step to “HAY-wire.” No, my student ‘as no Cockney in ‘is ‘istory, but nor has he any HAY in his history, let alone baling wire, used to bale, what else, hay. (Webster’s says “haywire”—hastily made, out of control or order, mentally upset—derives from “the use of baling wire for makeshift repairs,” showing that my own mental image, of a coil of wire-for-hay turning into an uncontrollable springy tangle when unbound, was also a little off-target, although at least in the right field of reference.)

And so I believe what we have here is another example of hearing an unfamiliar expression and translating it into something more comfortable in the hearer’s lexicon. For a word that begins with the prefix “a-,” I’m accustomed to stressing the root word rather than the prefix. I also do this with other prefixes: I refer, for example, to the deFENCE on a football team as well as in a court. My student, on the other hand, probably roots for the Giants’ DEfence, and definitely knows how to say A-rod. And there you are.

I’m going to miss my merry Wichita linemen-for-the-county, stringing electrical wire from pole to pole so that they, too, can give a little power to the people. On the other hand, I’ve been given petty despots bouncing off the walls of their throne-rooms, an image far less noble but entertaining in its own way.

And, since all I did was correct the word, my student will never know how much fun he gave me.


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!

“In ‘The Lottery’ one person a year is rocked to death.”

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the short story mentioned in this sentence, read it here before proceeding, since the commentary deals with the surprise ending.

Shirley Jackson’s tale of municipally-sponsored stone-throwing has unsettled readers ever since 1948, when it was published in The New Yorker, and I know this student was trying to describe the events of the story. Perhaps inadequate exposure to the Old Testament during her formative years left her ignorant of the verb “to stone”; this is obviously her attempt to do without it.

Oh, dear, though, doesn’t she know there is  a verb “to rock,” and we do it to babies? I’m sure—well, pretty sure—she never pictured infants in treetops being pelted with stones (or, wait a second! maybe that’s why that bough breaks?). She’s not thinking of other uses of the verb “to rock,” either: Rock and roll had nothing to do with lithobolia on the dance floor; people aren’t strapped into rocking chairs in execution chambers; and in 1971 when Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently, Rock Me Slowly” was #1 on the hit parade, no one thought he was asking for a kinder, gentler stoning. (For that matter, what did she think “Everybody Must Get Stoned” was about? Aha! Maybe she thought “stoning” applied only to drugs!)

For me, my student’s statement evoked a picture of someone being literally killed with kindness as the rocking chair gathers speed and the rockee’s brain finally scrambles. (I know this really does happen in some cases of child abuse, but my mental picture is more Edward Gorey or Terry Gilliam than New York Daily News.)

Another student, writing on the same story, attempts to describe its surprise ending and, thanks to an ambiguous pronoun usage, complicates the final picture:

“This allows the reader to be shocked when Jackson tells us ‘a stone hit her in the side of the head.’ No one can truly see it coming.”

That’s what’s so perpetually engaging about all these errors: you can’t see them coming, and when they hit you, they really knock you for a loop. I guess you could say they rock you.

“She must at least serve a few years of community service…”

That is not, of course, the funny part.

It’s only the beginning of a sentence recommending a, well, sentence for the lying young woman who charged a stranger with rape so she’d have someone other than her boyfriend to blame if she was pregnant (read it here).

Here’s the whole recommendation:

“She must at least serve a few years of community service, such as serving food to the old disabled people in the condolence home.”

My discomfiture at using “sentence” twice in one, okay, sentence, each time with a different meaning, is nothing to this student’s using a form of “serve” THREE times in one sentence, each time with a different meaning: serve as in “serve a sentence,” service as “the act of providing sustenance or assistance,” and “serving” as “dishing out” or “distributing.”

Then there’s the question of whether people have to be both old AND disabled to receive this food, or whether one of these afflictions would suffice. Not to mention the question of whether the old disabled people would want such a sleazy person for a waitress.

But I’ve been purposely saving for last the choicest morsel served up by my student: “the condolence home.” He couldn’t mean “convalescence home,” could he? After all, plenty of people in convalescence homes are neither old nor permanently disabled; all are, ideally, convalescing from a condition made temporary by a medical procedure or by natural healing over time. If he’s never been to a convalescence home OR to a nursing home OR to a home for the less-able elderly, perhaps he can be forgiven for not understanding that different kinds of facilities serve different populations with different needs and each has a name. I’m pretty sure he did mean “convalescence home,” but he shouldn’t have meant that, because it’s not the name of the facility that matches the population he has in mind.

Anyway, I think there really is a need for a condolence home. I can picture myself in one now: “Ah, I don’t feel so well, I’m tired but I can’t sleep, I have a funny pain in my ankle, my back is killing me, I think I’m getting cataracts, my investments aren’t doing well,” I say. “Oh, you poor, poor thing. Oh, I’m so sorry you don’t feel well. Oh, how unfair. There, there,” replies my soft-voiced silver-haired cool-handed handsome Condoler (I’ve based him on the movie doctors who always attended wealthy consumption patients in those lovely sanatoria in the Swiss Alps—remember them?).

The philanthropist who would be willing to create such a facility would be doing a great service to people like me, and creating a LOT of jobs, since I’m sure the homes would multiply as the millions of my fellow creatures who could use some condoling-with heard about them. Sign me up for the first lawn chair.

“Laura suffers from an insuperiority complex.”

Everybody knows that Laura Wingfield, of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, suffers from an inferiority complex—or at least everybody given to quick psycholabeling knows that. Painfully shy and self-conscious with everyone except her mother and brother and glass animals, and even self-effacing and timid with her mother and brother, she blossoms tentatively and briefly in the warmth of the Gentleman Caller’s enthusiasm and probably is worse off than ever when he apologetically but definitely leaves.

Is there any student in America who, given such a description, would not rattle off “inferiority complex”? How many other words are attached to “complex” in the typical mind? Possibly “superiority,” but I certainly don’t hear that combination nearly as often. “Oedipus complex,” certainly, but no one would apply that to Laura.

For my student, “inferiority complex” either did not leap to mind or did not satisfy. But then what in the world was the intention?

Is an “insuperiority complex” a neurotic tendency to think one is average? That would be an interesting neologism, but actually Laura did not think she was average—Lord, she would have given anything to be average. Well, then, maybe an insuperiority complex is a neurotic desire to be not-superior? But she certainly doesn’t entertain any notion that she is superior, so she couldn’t have the desire not to be.

By that reasoning, what she might have could be dubbed an uninferiority complex: a belief that she is inferior, and a neurotic desire to be not-inferior.

Perhaps we have moved into the wonderful world of shades of gray, the world of the effective double negative, where statements like “I don’t dislike him” and “She was not unpleasant” enable the writer/speaker to add more nuance to the ordinary yes-no dichotomy.

Even if I can’t make “insuperiority complex” fit Laura, I think there might be room in the lexicon for “insuperiority” and “uninferiority,” states slightly above and slightly below “average” or “normal,” but not quite there in the bland middle.

“Men are made to look like the ferior in a society and women inferior.”

A classic back-formation!

This was from an essay concerning possible sex discrimination in the firefighter’s test in Connecticut. The sentence that preceded the above is “Before women ever thought about being a policeman or a firefighter, there were the men.”

So this appearance of feriority may be the result of simply being there first. And, in the case of this student’s statement, the men certainly were there: there were the men. Actually she seems to imply that men existed before women (and I suppose if you buy Genesis she is right, briefly anyway, although Genesis doesn’t reveal any desire on Eve’s part to fight fires).

Back-formation is the creation of a new word by removing what looks like a prefix or suffix to get back to the presumed root word. But “ferior” is not a root word. It is a word in Latin, apparently, although “church,” not classical, Latin; it means to rest from labor or observe a holiday, according to several Latin-translation sites (first-person singular present passive indicative of feriō, adds Wiktionary).

A quick Google yields the sobering fact, though, that my student is not alone. Wiktionary, a good place to look for slang, offers this:

ferior (comparativemore ferior, superlativemost ferior)

  1. (slang) From inferior by dropping prefix in-, meaning the opposite of inferior, or excellent, superior.

Urban Dictionary defines it as “of surpassing excellence, the opposite of inferior,” and offers T-shirts and mugs reading “Ferior!”

I’m supplying that link so you can see I’m not kidding, not so you can order something:

I have to admit I like the greeting card with the teacher writing “Ferior” on the board, though!

If men are the ferior, then is Mohammed Ali the most ferior? And considering that my student wrote her statement more than twenty years ago, might I speculate that she is the inventor of this term, with others who heard her thinking “Wow, is THAT the oppposite of ‘inferior’? Cool!”

I can see her now, working on her essay, wondering why women are always treated as men’s inferiors. Who do those men think they are, anyway, or what do they think they are? They think they are the opposite of inferior! “Superior” does not leap to her mind, as it obviously should; instead, she figures out her terminology by imitation of what seems to be a pretty reliable pattern (possible, impossible; finite, infinite; polite, impolite; tolerable, intolerable…). Makes sense, if you never studied Latin and therefore never learned that supra means “above” and infra means “below.” What she mistook for a prefix, in-, is actually part of the root word.

As in the case of men’s seeming feriority, appearances can be deceiving.