Word Fugitives


"A problem caused by a blundering or heavy-handed attempt to cure another problem" was one of the word fugitives sought in the June Atlantic. Pat Bergeson, of Chicago, responded with boomerwrong; Joel Hess, of Portland, Oregon, with blunderang; and David Israel, of Santa Clara, California, with solut ("a little short of a solution"). Michaele Dunlap, of Lake Oswego, Oregon, coined the nice idiotrogenic, but this word is an adjective, not a noun, as requested, and the related noun form, idiotrogenesis, is far afield from any word commonly seen. M. S. Coats, of Oregon City, Oregon, deserves special mention for submitting not one but two promising words: ouchcome and oopshot.

Some readers who responded enjoyed supplementing their coinages with examples. Jim Felde, of Concord, California, mentioned "attempting to pull out a tree stump by tying a rope to the car's bumper and thereby wrenching the latter from the vehicle" in the course of proposing fixasco. Richard Leeman, of Scotts Valley, California, told a story from his childhood: "On a cold winter day in Milwaukee, when our frozen car wouldn't start, my father laid some tarred hemp (oakum) on the ground under the engine and lit it. Within a couple of minutes the entire engine was ablaze." Leeman's suggested coinage was delution—an invention so similar in pronunciation to an existing word that if spoken it would surely be misunderstood, thereby exemplifying the very problem for which a name is being sought. As it happens, this was the case with a number of suggestions received, including solvo, submitted by Andy Hirth, of Columbia, Missouri; botchulism, submitted by four readers; dissolution or dyssolution, submitted by four readers; and wrecktification, also submitted by four. Or, as Maria Rhew, of Shady Hills, Florida, explained the situation in lobbying for her coinage, "Not only is it apropos, but the potential confusion created by its pronunciation would continually contribute to the very need for its existence!" Right she is, and she takes top honors this time, for side defect.

The other fugitive sought in June was a word for "nostalgia for the future as envisioned in the past." Jimmy D. Schmidt, of Houston, responded by sending in a copy of an essay by Joris Nauwelaers that appeared last year in the medical journal The Lancet, which in turn cited a 1992 book, Die Fliegenpein, by Elias Canetti, that introduced and defined the term Eraritjaritjaka: "an archaic, poetic expression in Aranda (an aboriginal tribe in Australia), which means: 'filled with desire for something that is lost.'"

Leslie Franevsky, of Phoenix, coined the equally euphonious protofuturisticexpialidocious. This is an example of what Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking-Glass, designated a portmanteau word: "Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy' ... You see it's like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word." Other portmanteau words coined in response to this fugitive include gee-wistfulness, from Joe Mix, of Boonsboro, Maryland; sigh-fi, from Julia Coward, of Asheville, North Carolina; O'erwellian, from Betty Sonders, of Oklahoma City; and Nineteeneightyeufouria, from Michael Blossom, of Los Angeles. The creator of yet another portmanteau word earns top honors: Peter L. Stein, of San Francisco, for his submission uhopia.

Now Michael Murphy, of Vancouver, British Columbia, writes: "What do you call it when an individual nods off for a few seconds and then jolts awake? I have observed this and also been a victim, falling asleep in a public situation only to draw attention to myself as I snap out of it as if in the electric chair. Any suggestions?"

And Tim Carr, of Atlanta, writes, "I'm a good speller, and a good typist. I'm also very good at math: I've been a professional statistician for thirty-plus years. My problem is that I'm terrible at transcribing numbers. To make a phone call, I have to put my finger on the number in the book and refer to it several times while dialing. Is there a word for my affliction?" Apparently there isn't—yet. Dyscalculia is a word, but it means "difficulty in solving math problems." And dysnumia probably shouldn't become a word, because it's too much like the medical term dysnomia, which means "difficulty in finding the right word or words." Is that what we're all experiencing just now?

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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