lung-bustingly

In the May/June 2010 issue of Canadian Running, coach Kevin Mackinnon writes,

Running on the track doesn’t have to be boring, and it doesn’t have to be lung-bustingly tough. (Yes, I know that lung-bustingly isn’t a word, but it seems like the perfect way to describe that can’t-quite-get-a-breath feeling at the end of a good, hard set.)

Well, coach, you have one thing pretty much right and one thing pretty much wrong there. I’ll start with the wrong: just because lung-bustingly isn’t in a dictionary you might happen to look in doesn’t mean it’s not a word. (Dictionaries are more like field guides than legislation – though people turn to them for guidance, even the most prescriptivist ones start by observing usage patterns, and they always have to make choices of what words to include and not to include.) You just used it, right? As an isolated lexical unit that is not internally modifiable by syntax (so one word, not several). And I understood it. So, too, no doubt, will everyone else who reads it (provided they understand English). So it’s a word. A nonce word, perhaps, but a word no less.

Not only that, it’s a word constructed from well-known parts by a standard, accepted derivational process. All the bits are ordinary English: lung, a good old English word; bust, a variant of burst, another good old English word; ing, a good old English suffix – actually more than one, but this ing is the one that forms the present participle and adjectives of action (Xing meaning the noun modified does X); and ly, another good old English suffix, also actually more than one, in this case the one that forms an adverb from an adjective. Put all together, they make a word just like heart-stoppingly, heartbreakingly, mind-numbingly, et cetera, all of which most often modify an adjective rather than a verb, and often one in the predicate position, as is the case here (not tough running but be tough). And it’s been used before – Google it and you’ll see.

On the other hand, I think you’re right about its being good at expressing how one feels after doing hard intervals or finishing a 5K race. Aside from the very clear imagery – lungs busting out of the ribcage, perhaps, or just breaking down internally, or bursting like balloons – it has a good sound, too. The stressed vowels are both the same one as you’re probably panting as you finish the run, and for a bit afterward: that deep-chest huh, huuh, hhuuuhhh. The lung also has echoes of lunge as well as perhaps of hunger and lust, and the velar nasal that ng represents is often almost the only consonant one can even articulate in that lung-busted state, and usually just as one attempts to swallow. Bust gives a nice puff of air bursting forth from the mouth. It fairly socks you between the eyes. (And see my tasting note on gangbusters.) And then the word goes back to that ng again. As a bonus, the form of the word suggests you have lungs like a bus and you’re all tingly now. And the rhythm is not the smooth-running rhythm of the middle of a race; it’s the stumble-stop as you cross the tape or pass the end point of your speed interval: dum da-da-dum, a tailless trochee and a dactyl.

In fact, it makes me think of a poem – in this case, one I wrote. It was published in TOK 3, and it’s also on my website, but I’ll include it here for you. Notice how many sounds and images hint at the same thing lung-bustingly communicates.

To the Finish
5k, Toronto Island

hot feet, boardwalk, legs blue sore
four thousand metres of panting so far
a bit of puddle spatter, a taste of salt spray
from hungry waves or the streaming body
running ahead, follow, thirst
now less than a thousand metres to go
boards riffling, crazing the eyes
each step cracking like aching joy
each breath a lust from the stomach
hoo, hoo, HAH, hoo, hoo, HAAH, ho
now nine hundred, now eight hundred
closing on body, white shirt, go past
a blue shirt slips by merely, but no
hold it, keep it, iron and acid
in body and water on boards, don’t slip
and five hundred metres now left
and it darkens below and is harder
and a line and people, shouts
a tree, a tree, another tree, grass
to curl up and lie on, stop, please stop
but hoo, hoo, HAH, ho
just sixty seconds now, less
gain no one else, admit no one more
when like a dream she overtakes you
yearning for the end like a lost baby
like reaching for her child in the taunting waves
nothing to do but follow her pull
go harder than you even can, burning
the greensward underfoot rolling, pitching
there is a space between the trees, and fifty
forty, hoo, HAH, thirty, grass
the banner, the sign, the clock
the time has all leaked out
and there’s just one second more, five metres
the length of three of her in a breath
and she is there, stumble stopped, gasping, coughing up
and you steam and shake and you have both prevailed
and the rest will fall in behind
but she has her metal, her ribbon
her shiny baby, and you have your time
three strides, three lengths of a body
a breath behind, and nothing you can hold

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