Orphaned at 55

From Christopher Buckley‘s “Mum and Pup And Me”, New York Times Magazine, 26 April, p. 22:

To the extent that this story has a dimension beyond the purely personal, I suppose it’s an account of becoming an orphan. My mother and father died within 11 months of each other in 2007 and 2008. I do realize that “orphan” sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age 55, but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the 800 or more condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn’t, until about the seventh or eighth reference, thought of myself as an “orphan.” Now you’re an orphan. . . . I know the pain myself of being an orphan. . . . You must feel so lonely, being an orphan. . . . When I became an orphan it felt like the earth dropping out from under me. . . . A certain chill began to encroach, until I was jolted out of my thousand-yard stare by an e-mail message from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I’d written that I was headed off to Arizona for some R and R: “May your orphanhood be tanned.”

I wrote a bit about orphan and related lexical items on Language Log a few years ago. That posting elicited a huge number of responses, which I still have not replied to in a follow-up posting. But some of these responses mentioned the very extension of the meaning of orphan in Buckley’s passage above.

The central meaning of orphan in modern English is something like ‘a child whose parents are dead’ (NOAD2). That is, it refers specifically to a child. The point where childhood ends might be somewhat unclear, but a 55-year-old man is certainly way past that point. So the use above — to cover anyone, of any age, whose parents are dead — is certainly a meaning extension, but a natural one, especially to or about someone whose parents have recently died, since the language has no lexical item with this meaning.

One Response to “Orphaned at 55”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    I would have thought “grandorphan” is a fairly transparent word for someone all of whose grandparents are dead; but I see it’s also been used

    in a weaker sense for kids who see little of their grandparents;

    and in a stronger sense for children lacking both parents and all grandparents.

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