Did you have grapefruit for breakfast this morning? If so, here’s hoping it didn’t orbisculate on you!
“Orbisculate”? What does that mean?
Glad you asked!
Neil Krieger ’62 coined the term during a freshman writing seminar more than six decades ago, when he was assigned to invent an English word. He came up with the verb “orbisculate,” defined as accidentally squeezing citrus juice into your eye. (The word can also be adapted to other parts of speech, like the noun “orbisculation” and the past tense “orbisculated.”)
Krieger, an avid grapefruit eater, kept using orbisculate throughout his life—and with such deadpan wit that his two kids always assumed it was a veritable word. In fact, daughter Hilary Krieger ’98 once lost $5 when she bet a friend that it could be found in the dictionary.
Sadly, Neil—a neuroscientist and biotech consultant from Boston—passed away in April 2020 at age 78 from complications of COVID-19. As a way of honoring their father’s memory and coping with their grief, Hilary and her brother, Jonathan, have launched a lighthearted campaign to raise awareness about their dad’s neologism, with the ultimate goal of getting it included in a major dictionary.
“As we were telling people about him after he passed away, we kept using this ‘orbisculate’ example,” Hilary recalls, “because we thought it captured a lot about him—his sense of humor and his ability to deal with adversity, to take what life throws at you and have some fun with it, to be creative and a bit quirky.”
After consulting with dictionary editors, the siblings learned that to gain entry, a new word needs to reach a certain threshold of ubiquity—as Hilary explains, “having it used as much as possible, by as many people in as many contexts as possible.”
So they created a list of goals large and small, like having orbisculate appear in a crossword puzzle, an episode of “The Simpsons,” a patent application, an ophthalmology journal, a tattoo (permanent or temporary), and many other places.
Launched during some of the pandemic’s darkest days, the campaign struck a chord—garnering coverage in national media including NPR, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, CNN, and CBS. Hilary and her brother appeared on “The Ellen Show,” where host Ellen DeGeneres recruited several celebrities—such as comedian Sarah Silverman and chef José Andrés—to contribute to the cause by using orbisculate on air.
Sharing our story and letting people know what an amazing person our dad was has been an amazing boost for us during a really dark time.
“One of the biggest accomplishments is the incredible way that our story has touched people, and the way those people have touched us,” says Hilary, a journalist with NBC News who served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Sun.
“Losing a parent under any circumstances is terrible, but for it to happen during COVID made it so much worse. Sharing our story and letting people know what an amazing person our dad was—and having people write us about how much they love it, and how it reminds them of their own family—has been an amazing boost for us during a really dark time.”
Among the many friends and family mourning Neil’s passing is one who was there at the very moment orbisculate was born. Paul Marantz ’62 not only attended high school with Neil—and, like him, went on to earn a doctorate from Harvard—but was his freshman roommate and had the same word-invention assignment.
“I came up with something which was so unimaginative, it was forgotten,” Marantz says with a laugh. “But the nice thing about Neil’s word is that it has lived on.”
A professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia, Marantz has struck a small blow for orbisculate: he taught his computer’s spell checker to accept it as valid. “The word doesn’t sound made up; it seems to make a lot of sense,” Marantz observes, noting that “orb” evokes the eye. “And it fills a gap in the English language. I think the campaign is a fitting tribute to Neil and a great way of remembering him.”
To date, the effort (dubbed “Orbisculation Nation”) has made significant strides. The word has been added to Urban Dictionary—admittedly, not a terribly tough task—and according to Hilary, Merriam-Webster has opened a file on it, a key step toward potential inclusion.
A fair number of the goals have been achieved—including having the word used in a proclamation by the city of Citrus Heights, CA, which happened in May.
The Orbisculation Nation campaign also has a fundraising aim: sales of branded merchandise, such as T-shirts and drinking glasses, benefit Carson’s Village, a charity that provides bereavement support and helps families cope with logistics in the aftermath of a sudden death. Some $20,000 has been raised so far, including $5,000 donated by a sponsor as part of the “Ellen” appearance.
“I think we’ve been pretty successful—it has exceeded our wildest dreams about the interest we’d get,” Hilary says of the campaign. “We’ve heard from thousands of people around the world who now know this word and are using it. Hopefully, one day it will be enough for the dictionary editors.”
And what does she think her dad would say about all this?
“It’s funny—he was definitely not a person who looked for the spotlight,” she says. “He’d always say, ‘I’m just a humble biochemist.’ So I think he’d find it humorous, or perplexing. But I also think he knew his word was pretty great.”