Word Fugitives


The responses to the July/August request for "a word for an object that works only if one employs a trick known to its owner or frequent user" were all over the map, in both senses of that expression. Some readers suggested eponyms—in particular, the likes of fonzie, fonzable, and fonzer, all intended to evoke "the Fonz," Henry Winkler's character in the sitcom Happy Days, because of his ability to get the jukebox to work by giving it a whack.

Evelin Sullivan, of Redwood City, California, who had asked for help in finding this word fugitive in the first place, wrote again to propose a coinage: jigglit. A couple of people suggested fussgadget. Bob Israel, of Westford, Massachusetts, proposed computer, explaining, "I've never seen one that didn't require regular trickery to keep it going." Several people proposed wife, husband, or spouse.

Neologisms beginning with thingama- were popular—for instance, thingamajiggler and thingamabobject. Ones beginning with idio- were more popular still, arriving from as far away as Karachi, Pakistan. Michael Mates, an officer at the U.S. Consulate General there, submitted idiosynpractical. Nifty word, but we were looking for a noun. Other readers sent in idiosecretic, idiopathetic, idiosymatic, and—hooray, some nouns!—idiosyncrathing and idiosyncontraption. Top honors go to Arun Shankar, of York, Pennsylvania, for thinking along these lines but thinking a bit more, well, idiosyncretically than most, to arrive at idiosynamajig.

In response to the other July/August request, for a word to describe a "fear of inadvertently throwing something valuable out with the garbage," many, many phobias arrived. Evidently the readers who sent them in suffer from neither doxophobia (fear of expressing opinions) nor neophobia (fear of anything new or novel), and some would even seem to be remarkably free of catagelophobia (fear of being ridiculed). Jacob de Jager, of Bountiful, Utah, proposed discardphobia; Yvonne R. Freund, of Portland, Oregon, the hard-to-pronounce dumphobia; Elizabeth B. Chast, of Brooklyn, New York, the Francophilic jeteraphobia; and Walter F. Tanski, of Troy, New York, the Hellenologophobic (that is, evidencing a fear of Greek terms) throwawayoopsaphobia. Ivan Cooper, of Traverse City, Michigan, offered up a nice variation on the theme: phthrobia.

The apparently Hellenologophilic Crawford MacKeand, of Greenville, Delaware, proposed "the too-little-known word losthrophobia." He went on to explain, "That current editions of the standard reference works appear to have passed it over is unfortunate, as it brings with it an interesting history. Although folk etymology embraces an obvious derivation, it is of course to the classical Greek, and especially that of Homer, that we should turn for a full understanding. While Liddell & Scott's Greek-English Lexicon offers us the Attic , it is clearly to the Homeric that we should turn (A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect, Cunliffe R. J., Blackie, London 1924). This had the well-established significance of 'most agreeable' or 'most advisable,' presumably identical to the unattested Koine word . The sense-inversion phenomenon in the English word is worthy of note, though not uncommon in derivative terminology, e.g. longshanks for a notably short person. A connection with loss, and with inadvertent discard, appears to have arisen at a relatively recent date, possibly even in our own century." Never mind that according to a recent, highly diplomatic e-mail from Samantha Schad, Ph.D., the senior assistant editor responsible for the classical component of etymologies in the Oxford English Dictionary, this account amounts to a gossamer of information laid delicately upon utter nonsense. MacKeand takes top honors.

Now CROSS G. MOORADIAN, of Troy, Michigan, writes, "Surely, at one time or another each of us has bought or received a gift that, truth be known, the giver secretly hoped to take possession of for himself. I can't think of a word for this kind of gift. Help."

And DEBORAH REDDEN, of McDonough, Georgia, writes, "A friend has a habit of taking a lovely song and changing one or two words to make it vulgar—which he thinks is funny. The next time the song is played, I 'hear' his crude version and not the actual rendition. Many of my favorite songs have been ruined in this manner. What would you call this? And is there a name for him?"

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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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