Words David Foster Wallace's Mom Invented

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"Twanger," "greebles," and other neologisms the author inherited from his mother

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D. T. Max's highly anticipated Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (public library) is out this week, and though it lacks the captivating prose of a great biography, it has a certain encyclopedic quality that is sure to galvanize DFW fanatics.

As a lover of unusual words, I was delighted to find among Max's factlets one about words invented by Wallace's mother, an English professor, which went on to permeate DFW's own writing—no surprise, given how we construct the patterns of our creativity:

No one else listened to David as his mother did. She was smart and funny, easy to confide in, and included him in her love of words. Even in later years, and in the midst of his struggle with the legacy of his childhood, he would always speak with affection of the passion for words and grammar she had given him. If there was no word for a thing, Sally Wallace would invent it: 'greebles' meant little bits of lint, especially those that feet brought into bed; 'twanger' was the word for something whose name you didn't know or couldn't remember. She loved the word 'fantods,' meaning a feeling of deep fear or repulsion, and talked of 'the howling fantods,' this fear intensified. These words, like much of his childhood, would wind up in Wallace's work.

And, indeed, it did. From Infinite Jest:

Orin's special conscious horror, besides heights and the early morning, is roaches. There'd been parts of metro Boston near the Bay he'd refused to go to, as a child. Roaches give him the howling fantods.

And again:

Unit #4, more or less equidistant from both the hospital parking lot and the steep ravine, is a repository for Alzheimer's patients with VA pensions. #4′?s residents wear jammies 24/7, the diapers underneath giving them a lumpy and toddlerish aspect. The patients are frequently visible at #4?s windows, in jammies, splayed and open-mouthed, sometimes shrieking, sometimes just mutely open-mouthed, splayed against the windows. They give everybody at Ennet House the howling fantods.

And yet again:

He really does have to sit right up close to listen to 'Sixty Minutes +/-- ...' when he's over at the HmH6565 with C.T. and sometimes Hal at his mother's late suppers, because Avril has some auditory thing about broadcast sound and gets the howling fantods from any voice that does not exit a living corporeal head...

And then some:

Joelle scrubbed at the discolored square of fingerprints around the light-switch until the wet Kleenex disintegrated into greebles.

From the posthumous The Pale King:

He could not understand why he was so afraid of people possibly seeing him sweat or thinking it was weird or gross. Who cared what people thought? He said this over and over to himself; he knew it was true. He also repeated--often in a stall in one of the boys' restrooms at school between periods after a medium or severe attack, sitting on the toilet with his pants up and trying to use the stall's toilet paper to dry himself without the toilet paper disintegrating into little greebles and blobs all over his forehead, squeezing thick pads of toilet paper onto the front of his hair to help dry it ...

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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