The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their dad died of covid. Now they’re trying to get the clever word he made up into the dictionary.

(Washington Post illustration/iStock)
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In the early aughts, Hilary Krieger was sitting in her parents’ Boston home, when her friend accidentally squirted himself with an orange slice.

“I said, ‘Oh, the orange just orbisculated,’ ” she recalls. “And he said, ‘It did what?’ ”

The two made a $5 bet, and Krieger gleefully grabbed the family dictionary. She flipped to the “O” section and stared at the spot on the page where “orbisculate” should have been. “My first thought is, ‘What’s wrong with this dictionary?’ ” she says.

Aghast, Krieger burst into her dad’s study and told him the shocking news: Orbisculate is somehow not in the dictionary!

“And he looked kind of sheepish, and that’s when I found out that he made up this word when he was in college and had just been using it our whole lives, as if it were a real word,” Krieger says.

He’d always defined it as “when you dig your spoon into a grapefruit and it squirts juice directly into your eye,” she said. Though the family also applied it to other fruits and vegetables that unexpectedly spritzed.

Out $5 and wondering what other fake words might be lurking in her vocabulary, Krieger was mad at the time. But she quickly came to see her dad’s made-up word as a gift, one that encapsulates his mischievous and inventive spirit.

“It speaks to his creativity and the idea that, even when something’s painful and annoying like getting grapefruit juice in your eye, you can laugh and have fun with it.”

Two decades later, Krieger found herself telling that funny story again and again, in some very sad circumstances. Her father, Neil Krieger, died of complications from covid-19 in April at age 78. Since the Kriegers couldn’t have a proper funeral, Hilary Krieger, who now lives in New York, spent a lot of time on the phone talking with friends and family, and the orbisculate story kept coming up.

“I began to think, ‘Orbisculate is such a great word, why isn’t it in the dictionary? Orbisculate should be in the dictionary!’ ” said Krieger, an editor at NBC News.

Krieger, 44, called her brother Jonathan Krieger, 35, who lives in Boston and runs an online trivia company — and together, they hatched an elaborate plan to get the word officially recognized. To make it happen, they’d need help from friends and strangers.

Merriam-Webster adds about 1,000 new words to its master database every year, words that then trickle down to the company’s various print and online dictionaries. The most recent batch of new words, released in January, is full of pandemic-related vocabulary like “long-hauler” and “pod.” Technology-related words are also well represented — “reaction GIF” for example, and the use of @ that means to challenge — as in “don’t @ me.”

Best friends separated in the Holocaust just reunited. They were ‘laughing like they were still 9 years old,’ family said.

Editors at the dictionary’s whisper-quiet office, in Springfield, Mass., are constantly scouring newspapers, academic journals, books and even cartoon captions for new words.

“What we’re looking for is usage in publications with a large and broad readership,” says senior editor Emily Brewster.

Brewster and her colleagues generally track words for years or even decades before nominating them for dictionary status. This ensures that flash-in-the-pan coinages, like Will Smith’s use of “jiggy,” to mean trendy (briefly popular in the ’90s), can’t sneak in. But if a word really takes off, it can shortcut the process.

“The word that has the record for most quickly entering the dictionary is covid-19, at 34 days,” she says. “The term before that was AIDS.”

In addition to diseases, any words that describe concrete phenomena that affect many people tend to get picked up quickly, Brewster notes.

“That’s one of the things ‘orbisculate’ has going for it — there is no single word that captures the squirting in the eye that certain fruits do,” she says.

Getting a word into the dictionary isn’t easy, but the Kriegers’ 50-point plan as described on their website, is spot on, Brewster says. Encouraging people to use “orbisculate” in a wide variety of contexts, such as comic strips, news stories and the name of a Ben & Jerry’s sorbet flavor, will leave a compelling trail of evidence for lexicographers to follow.

“If they were able to accomplish all of that, the word’s status as an established member of the English language would be pretty irrefutable,” she says.

Even if they don’t succeed in getting the word added to the dictionary, the Kriegers’ project may help buffer them against some of the feelings of despair and hopelessness that have struck them and many families who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus, says psychologist Robert A. Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. Among the many reasons that virus-related grief is especially shattering is that social distancing separates mourners from their friends and family.

“We are unable to gather together and we’re denied the simple reassurance of a human hug,” Neimeyer says.

The Kriegers’ orbisculation campaign may help them push back against feelings of isolation, he adds.

“This family has come up with a creative way of memorializing their father, by building a community around this thing that’s distinctive about him,” Neimeyer says.

That community, which the Kriegers named Orbisculation Nation, even has a uniform of sorts — a citrus-festooned T-shirt, which you can buy on their website for $25 or $28. (Proceeds go to Carson’s Village, a charity that helps families in mourning.)

“You’ll get a random text from your friends wearing their T-shirt, and it basically means ‘I’m thinking of you guys,’ ” says Jonathan Krieger. “Just to have that reminder, that there are people who are thinking about you and who care about you, helps a lot.”

The Orbisculation Nation isn’t just sending texts. It is also helping the Kriegers check off items on their list for orbisculation domination, with a goal of putting the word to use publicly enough that it has a chance of becoming legitimate.

One family friend went rogue and put a homemade orbisculation warning sign on a pile of grapefruit in a grocery store (Goal No. 14).

People the Kriegers don’t know personally, but who were just inspired by the campaign, used the word in an online crossword puzzle (Goal No. 1) and a homemade cartoon (Goal No. 19). And when the “Because Language” podcast announced online voting to determine their word of the year, the Orbisculation Nation put their favorite word over the top.

It’s such a good word, it might have won even without their online campaign, says podcast host Daniel Midgley.

“Orbisculate felt like a refreshing splash of citrus in an otherwise grim year of words,” Midgley says.

It has been nearly a year since Neil Krieger’s death, and his children are still reeling from the loss. But their campaign to get their father’s word into the dictionary has helped them recapture a little of the joy that has been missing from their lives.

“I could picture him being really excited about the fact that The Washington Post is interviewing us,” Jonathan Krieger says. “He’d say, ‘It’s dynamite!’ It’s dynamite — that’s a thing he always used to say.”

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