Making Up for a Loss for Words

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Sometimes, the words we want to use to articulate a particular moment elude us. Other times, the right word is outside of our commonly-used vocabulary — or it just doesn’t exist. While at the Nieman narrative journalism conference in Boston earlier this year, for instance, I was talking with a Boston Globe reporter who said, “I wish there were a word for the moment in a movie when you hear the movie’s title and learn what it means. Maybe there is a word for this, but if there is, I don’t know it.”

Another example comes from Jodi Picoult’s book, “My Sister’s Keeper.” In the book, just after one of the main characters named Sara has lost her child, she says: “In the English language there are orphans and widows, but there is no word for the parent who loses a child.” That sentence stuck with me. Why isn’t there a word for a parent who loses a child?

As a child, I used to come up with neologisms all the time. One of my favorites, which I still use to this day is “Refwingem.” These are plastic discs that I used to paint with glitter glue and sell at my lemonade stands. My friends got a kick out of my childhood stories about Refwingems — so much so that they all wanted me to make them one. (Mind you, there were 10 of us in my group of college friends. That’s a lot of Refwingems!)

Sophomore year, we dubbed our room “Room Refwingem,” which was across the hall from our other friends’ room, “Giddyup 409.” (The room number was 409 and my friends like the Beatles.) I’ve even made Refwingems for colleagues at work. I don’t know what made me want to call the glittery discs “Refwingems,” but it’s fun to say and it’s part of my special lexicon among friends.

Last year, my colleague/mentor Roy Peter Clark wrote a column about neologisms and developing a special lexicon for your readers. It’s well worth a read.

What words do you want to invent if you haven’t already?