metumpsychosis (sic)

The other day, while doing some editing, I came across the word “psychopomp,” which obliquely reminded me of an incident from high school. Possibly earlier, but I think it was in my high school Humanities class, which might as well have been called Dead White Males 101, or Welcome to the Canon of Great Western European Art.

Early in the semester, maybe even on the first day, the teacher wrote the word METUMPSYCHOSIS on the board (yes, spelled with a U), and asked us what it meant.

Various kids may have given jokey answers, but nobody knew. I knew I had seen the word before, but wasn't sure what it meant.

When we were done guessing, she told us that it was meaningless, a nonsense word that she had made up. I think she was making some kind of pedagogical point, maybe about the value of admitting ignorance? I'm not sure.

I was confused—I was sure I had seen the word before. But I didn't know where.

It wasn't until some time later that I re-encountered the word “metempsychosis.” (With no U.) It is, of course, a perfectly good word with a respected and ancient lineage. It means “transmigration of the soul,” and the term has been used by writers from Kipling to Joyce (speaking of dead white males) to Pynchon.

Whenever this incident comes to mind, I wonder all over again: what would the teacher have said if one of us had known the word? Would she have told us that this was a different (and made-up) word because it had a U in it? (But if so, then why didn't she mention the real word/spelling to us?) Or did she not know the actual word?

Anyway. A mystery without an answer; I'm not sure which teacher it was, I don't know if she's still alive, and I doubt she would remember the incident. But I do wonder occasionally what she had in mind.

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