Most of us would easily recognize the word "lolita" as a term for a young girl, not yet of full sexual maturity, but possessed of a recognizable, sometimes even overpoweringly sexual nature appealing to older men. The term comes by way of reference to Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel Lolita, and its eponymous character Dolores "Lolita" Haze, a twelve-year-old girl with whom the protagonist Humbert Humbert is infatuated.

Of course, the majority of people who use the word have not actually read the book, but rather picked it up from second- or third-hand references from the broader culture, where the term is applied liberally wherever there is a need to invoke the raw and radiant power of youthful sexuality, be it in the realms of the arts, of cultural commentary, psychology, or pornography.

Mostly pornography.

Those who have read the book, however, know that Nabokov, a talented trilingual with a finely tuned ear for neologism, specifically created another word for this kind of creature - "nymphet". From a monologue by Humbert, early in the book:

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ”nymphets".

It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see ”nine" and “fourteen" as the boundaries - the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks - of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.

The word is obviously derived from "nymph", although given that this is Nabokov we are speaking of, the etymology is fairly rich and twisted upon itself. Most simply, it draws on the modern English meaning of "nymph", that of a young girl. More poetically, the word draws on the Greek myth of the nymph - beautiful creatures with the power to capture men's attentions. Humbert refers to himself as a "nympholept", a man entranced by a nymph. This is more than mere infatuation - according to legend, nymphs could reciprocally grant their nympholeptic worshippers powers of prophecy and great poetic skill, which goes some ways towards accounting for the manner in which Nabokov expresses such complex language play in the narrative voice of Humbert, an otherwise fairly ordinary man. Given that Lolita was published at the height of High Freudianism in 1955 and features as a prominent theme attacks upon psychoanalitic theory and contemporary accounts of the mechanisms of human desire, it is reasonable to assume that Nabokov intended readers to also draw associations to nymphomania.

While a survey of the language reveals that "nymphet" has captured a respectable place for itself, it is largely eclipsed by "lolita". Surely it is one of those great ironies of life that Nabokov, one of the greatest wordsmiths of modern times, is most widely recognized for the coinage of a term he wasn't even trying to introduce.

Nymph"et (?), n.

A little or young nymph.

[Poetic] "The nymphets sporting there."

Drayton.

 

© Webster 1913.

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