For those who are acquainted with the sensation, accidentally squeezing citrus juice into your eye is irritating beyond words. However, with the push to fit “orbisculate” — a word coined in 1958 by late alum Neil Krieger ’62 — into the dictionary, the acidic sting of a grapefruit to the cornea won’t be nearly as indescribable.
Orbisculate was invented by Neil Krieger during one of his first-year writing seminars at the University more than 60 years ago. The intransitive verb — one that does not take a direct object — is defined on the Krieger family’s website as: “to accidentally squirt the inner content from fruits, vegetables and other foods onto one’s face, body, or clothing, or onto that of a person nearby.”
After Krieger’s unexpected passing in April 2020 due to COVID-19 at the age of 78, his wife Susan and children Jonathan and Hilary Krieger ’98 were forced to grieve without the closure of a proper eulogy or in-person shiva, a week-long mourning period for those of the Jewish faith.
Instead, Hilary and Jonathan have decided to honor their father by getting orbisculate into the English dictionary.
As such, they have begun a social media campaign to bring the word out of obscurity and into every-day use. To chronicle their success, the Orbisculate website lists 50 goals, 16 of which have already been completed, which they hope to achieve.
These obstacles range from getting the word in a grocery store to being included in a song by Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda.
Growing up, Hilary and Jonathan thought orbisculate was already in the dictionary. While most of Neil Kreiger’s classmates quickly forgot their linguistic inventions, he continued to use his regularly — and the opportunity arose frequently, considering Krieger made freshly squeezed orange juice for his family on weekends.
Hilary, a former editor-in-chief for The Sun, only found out orbisculate was invented by her father at the age of 23, when she had made a $5 bet with a Cornell friend and fellow Sun alum Alex Carey ’97, who doubted that the word was real.
Hilary joked that, with this project, she is looking forward to reclaiming her $5.
To those close to Neil, orbisculate and the story behind it showcased his ability to turn a mundane, negative situation into something hilarious.
“[Orbisculate] is just a really great example of who he was and it encapsulated so much about him in one word,” Hilary said. “It was funny, it was creative, it was original, it took something that would otherwise be pretty negative, and turned it into something to have fun with. That was very much his personality.”
Krieger’s Cornell roommate, high school classmate and lifelong friend Paul Marantz ’62 also commented on how orbisculate illuminates Neil outside of his career.
“I think the word was very much in keeping with his very playful, humorous attitude he had towards life,” Marantz said. “Inventing the word orbisculate, keeping it alive and then not even telling his kids that the word was invented, very much sort of reflects his playful side.”
Attaining professorships in biochemistry at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania before founding a consulting firm for biochemical start-ups, Neil Krieger’s career strayed far from lexicography. However, Krieger’s held onto a love of libraries and an all-encompassing curiosity for words and the world around him, all of which manifested itself in orbisculate.
“He always wanted to understand and think through and be engaged with these different parts of life, so to him science, humor and creativity, the written creation of words, those were all connected for him,” Hilary said.
The best way to support the “Orbisculation Nation,” according to Hilary, is for people to fold the word into their daily vocabulary. Additionally, supporters can sign the petition on their website in support of the word or purchase an orbisculate t-shirt, of which all proceeds go to Carson’s Village, a nonprofit that helps with the logistical and bureaucratic challenges families face when they lose a loved one.
To Hilary and Jonathan Krieger, one of the most fulfilling aspects of the project has been watching their father’s story resonate with those who hear about it. In many ways the project functions in much the same way that Neil’s word does — it turns a negative into a positive.
“I hope what people take is a way to find something positive in the dark time where we see all this stuff with people passing away,” Jonathan said. “ I think one of the things special for us is to share the story of who our father was, but it’s also special to hear stories of other people and who they’ve lost that meant so much to them.”