Sometimes circumstances can make us look a little exotic, perhaps even to the point of unrecognizability. Just yesterday I happened to encounter someone I’d known for about 23 years – since she was very young – and she didn’t recognize me at all at first. I chalk it up to my plague-length hair, though the mask I was wearing might not have helped. Well, at least it wasn’t because I looked, you know, terrible, as in unhealthy or something. (I am older than I once was, but younger than I’ll be. That’s not unusual.) Honestly, even without masks or unreaped hair we can look different. I’ve seen pictures of people made up for attending a wedding and would never have known it was them if they hadn’t been tagged in the photo on Facebook. And I’ve seen people who’ve long been unwell and they can truly be changed.

That can happen to words, too. It’s a frequent occurrence for people to get a word just slightly wrong. I watched a couple of people lose hundreds of dollars that way on Jeopardy! tonight. If the word is well known, well, it might be recognized anyway; though it won’t win you the money, they’ll know what you’re saying: the overall shape will be close enough – after changes upon changes, words are more or less the same. But if the word is rare, some exotic lexeme from the bibliotechnical jewel box, it might be quite hard to pick out. Sometimes it looks worse, sometimes better, sometimes just… different. And sometimes that can make a whole new word.

Consider katexic. David Foster Wallace used the word in a description of Goran Ivanisevic:

Goran Ivanisevic is large and tan and surprisingly good-looking—at least for a Croat; I always imagine Croats looking ravaged and katexic and like somebody out of a Munch lithograph.

We can guess by context that “looking . . . katexic” means, approximately, “looking like shit.” All that remains to be determined is the specific lexicosemantic scatology. (Just by the way, I worked with a number of Croatians years ago, and overall they were good-looking and healthy. So DFW was just being a dick here. Shocking.)

But if we look up katexic, we do not find it. If we Google it, all we find is articles discussing what the heck it means. It’s sort of like classiomatic: a word that only exists through a misunderstanding, and is only perpetuated by people trying to get their fingers in to unknot it.

But it tickled my mind in just the right way, because I am a weirdo, specifically the kind of weirdo who goes rambling through dictionaries looking for words that crunch in my mouth and mind like snack food. And so I headed right away to my little vignette on cachexy, of which the adjectival form is cachexic. Since the ch is said as “k” you can see how DFW, by dissimilation, could arrive at t for it. (I can also picture an editor putting a note on it: “Is this the right word? Can’t find in dictionary” and DFW writing in response “Get a better dictionary. STET.”) And what does cachexy mean? Malaise. General ill health. Weight loss, muscle atrophy. Feeling – and looking – like caca.

Can we confirm that this is what Wallace wanted? Well, as is pointed out on Wordnik, he used the word again, with one difference in spelling, in Infinite Jest (one of the most accurate book titles going, at least the Infinite part, because most readers never get to the end):

Joelle is surrounded by catexic newcomers crossing and uncrossing their legs every few seconds and sniffing compulsively and looking like they’re wearing everything they own.

This is on page 707, if you want to flip to it in your copy. The setting is a meeting of the Narcotics Anonymous splinter group Cocaine Anonymous. Which really kinda undermines speculations about it coming from katexis, which is normally rendered cathexis now and refers to investing libidinal energy into the mental representation of person or thing. The contexts also don’t work well with an origin tracing to katexoken (also spelled catexochen), meaning ‘preeminently’.

No, I can say with some confidence that, just as a person may be hard to recognize due to some bout of ill health, a word may be hard to recognize because of some fever in the mind of a writer. And so I see this and I say, ah, cachexic – I hardly knew ya!

But since it’s a word, it’s always open to becoming a new word. If vermin and varmintvictuals and vittlesperson and parson, can all be the same word cloven in two by reconstrual, so can cachexic and katexic. The consonant dissimilates and so does the word. A little shift of form, a little shift of usage… it’s not as though it’s an actual person with a coherent stream of consciousness…

Thanks to Chris Lott for requesting this word, about which he assembled some bits at katexic.com.

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