“A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
At some point in my public-school education, teeming with redundant English credits, or my liberal-arts education, stylish but incomplete like a half-finished classic car rusting out in an overgrown yard, I was taught that the word orgiastic was coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Now I have reason to doubt that he ever used that word at all.
Maybe it’s too much to say “I was taught” this fact. Better to say “I learned it.” The truth is, I couldn’t tell you who told it to me, only that it came from a mouth and a mind that I trusted to know what it was talking about—almost certainly not another student, then, unless that student was older than me. Or a TA. Or confident. Or maybe pretty.
The fact is that I believed it. I told it to people as a bit of literary trivia. I have since relayed the lie as if it were the truth.
The idea that he was the first writer—an American writer, natch—to take the word orgy and adapt it to an adjectival form seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time, I learned it. He did it, after all, during the Roaring Twenties when scandal was the big game in town, promiscuity (of a sort) was a fashionable mode, and half the country was drinking outside the law. It was a ripe time for naughty coining and speaking easy. Plus, we’re talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald—the man who minted the term “Jazz Age.” Near as I could tell, he was in the business. Prior to him, I thought back then, all other published authors in the English language were either still too stiffly British in their education and manner to refer to something so crass as an orgy, or were Mark Twain.
As an American novelist of the age, writing a book about flamboyant house parties, it made sense to me that he was in a position where he needed to conjure the notion of an orgy, and fast—no time to waste on a metaphor or an analogy. He needed to get at “in the manner of an orgy” quick as a shot, with a shocking flare and an afterimage, like a flashbulb going off. So he invented a word that would do the job.
This past week, though, the illusion was popped like a bubble when I finished reading The Great Gatsby for the first time in more than a decade. My choice of text was the 1992 Collier Books edition “authorized by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald” (his name taking the form of an oversized signature), featuring notes and a preface by an enthusiastic Matthew J. Bruccoli. This edition, it explained, “restore[d] all the language of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece” to give us “The Great Gatsby as Fitzgerald intended it.”
Most of these changes depend on punctuation, rather than word or scene changes, so it’s not quite a director’s-cut kind of thing, but still I was excited. Even better, I knew a lot more about the era during this reading of the book than I did when I last read it in high school, so I looked forward to—and found—a richer experience in the reading.
Then, as I’m coasting to the end of the book, to the end of that last page, I come up on that fateful passage where a word was born, and this is what I see:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms father…. And one fine morning—
That’s not a typo. Reading Bruccoli’s notes in the back of the book, I learned that Edmund Wilson substituted orgiastic for orgastic while re-editing the book after Fitzgerald’s death. So… what does this mean about the legend of the word? Does this mean Wilson coined the word? Is the whole notion of orgiastic as a young American word bogus?
To the Internet!
First, I had to look up Fitzgerald’s intended orgastic. It turns out to be a variant of orgasmic with, in some definitions, a vaguely medical connotation. It turns up in my Oxford American dictionary widget but isn’t recognized as a word by the spellcheckers Firefox or Word, for example.
The truth of orgiastic is more depressing—scraping the chrome right off the thing. Wiktionary cites Sax Rohmer’s Dope as a source for the word, and that book was published in 1919, five years before Gatsby was written (and three years before its story takes place). The word was plainly in circulation already. My Oxford American widget reports that the word is from the late 17th century:
[…] from Greek orgiastikos, from orgiastës, agent noun from orgiazein ‘hold and orgy’
How plainly wrong was the idea that Fitzgerald coined the word? So wrong that a Google search for Fitzgerald +orgiastic +Gatsby reveals wrongness in sample text on the first page of results. That simple search disproves the very idea that the word orgiastic was even a sure-thing in the book at all.
Supposedly, Edmund Wilson thought Fitzgerald meant orgiastic when he wrote orgastic because Fitzgerald was a notoriously bad speller. That means Wilson may even have been right—Fitzgerald might have meant either word and we’ll never know.
What we do know is that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t invent the word orgiastic and that someone, somewhen, misinformed me. And that I, as an exuberant trivialist, spread that misinformation around. We can—and you should—be left wondering: Just what else am I wrong about?