Nabokov’s Greatest Irony

July 23, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Books, Brilliant Words, Nympholept)

Neologisms are the meaningless words used by psychotics — or so Stedman’s Medical Dictionary describes. A more contemporary description, neologism is itself a coined term that is applied to new concepts, to synthesize pre-existing concepts, or to make older terminology sound or containe a more contemporary meaning.

Neologisms are especially useful in identifying inventions, new phenomena, or old ideas that have taken on a new cultural context. One of the most popular examples of the latter is Vladimir Nabokov’s creation of the word nymphet, a term used liberally wherever there is “a need to invoke the raw and radiant power of youthful sexuality, be it in the realms of the arts, of cultural commentary, psychology, or pornography.”

From a monologue by Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita:

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.

It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the boundaries – the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks – of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.

The etymology of Nabokov’s neologism nymphet, most simply, draws on the modern English meaning of “nymph”, that of a young girl. Furthermore, it more poetically draws on the Greek myth of the nymph — beutiful creatures with the power to capture men’s attention, bringing about dumbness, besotted infatuation, madness, and even stroke.

Humbert refers to himself as a nympholept, a man entranced by a nymph — and another of Nabokov’s neologisms. “This is more than mere infatuation — according to legend, nymphs could reciprocally grant their nympholeptic worshippers powers of prophecy and great poetic skill, which goes some ways towards accounting for the manner in which Nabokov expresses such complex [word] play in the narrative voice of Humberts, an otherwise fairly ordinary man.”

“Lolita” has also become one of Nabokov’s great literary neologisms, to which it has largely eclipsed even the popularity of his “nymphet”. “Surely it is one of those great ironies of life that Nabokov, one of the greatest wordsmiths of modern times, is most widely recognized for the coinage of a term he wasn’t even trying to introduce.”

Link: everything2–Nymphet | everything2–Neologism | Wikipedia–Neologism | Wikipedia–Nymph
Image Via: Ectoplasmosis

1 Comment

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