Word Fugitives


The Atlantic's readers seem to have worried about the authors of October's word-fugitive questions. One October question was "What do you call it when an individual nods off for a few seconds and then jolts awake?" "Nodding out and snapping back to life is the core experience of an opiate high," warned Richard Kleiner, of Las Vegas, in an ominous-looking memo sent from Intervention Headquarters at Arbitronix, where Kleiner works. Max Uhler, of Minneapolis, wrote, "This behavior is commonly seen among the gravely sick." "Tell him to see his doctor," urged Verba Weaver, of Lake Elmo, Minnesota. Addressing the author directly, Laszlo Javorik, of Oregon, Illinois, wrote, "Be careful!!! Especially if the symptoms appear together with extraordinary thirst, you may be diabetic! Get your blood sugar and your glucohemoglobin tested immediately!!!"

Many other readers wrote to suggest medical terms that might apply. We asked John Shepard, the medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, to choose among them, and he responded that hypnic jerk seemed to best fit the symptoms described. (He also said that the great majority of people who experience a hypnic jerk have nothing to worry about.) But of course that's medical jargon; Word Fugitives was looking for something less technical and more conversational. Martin St-André, of Montreal, Quebec, shared a local idiom: "The expression we have is cogner des clous, more or less translatable as 'hammering nails' or maybe 'pounding nails with one's head.'" Kim Jastremski, of Murray, Kentucky, wrote, "One of my favorite phrases in Polish describes just this kind of sleep. The Poles say to sleep like a woodpecker."

Stu Thompson, of Littleton, Colorado, coined cornpecking; Merri Johnson, of Auburn, Nebraska, napoplexy; Roger Barkan, of Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, snaptime; Cindie Farley, of Pacific Grove, California, dozedive; Roy W. McLeese III, of Washington, D.C., the bobs; Seth Eisner, of Arlington Heights, Illinois, nodding off and on; Liz Bennett Bailey, of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, a wake-up fall; and Ben Grossblatt and Sara Debell, of Seattle, kitnap.

Taking top honors is Wayne Otto, of Middleton, Wisconsin. He was one of ten people to suggest his word, but he made the case for it both early and persuasively. "If a short, refreshing snooze is a catnap," he wrote, "then a short but abruptly terminated snooze must be a catsnap."

The seeker of October's other fugitive wrote, "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?" Many readers admitted to suffering from the same disorder, and more than a few wrote in to suggest cures. James E. Hunter, of Camden, South Carolina, advised, "The difficulty can be solved by the simple expediency of repeating the offending telephone number ALOUD." Karen Kwa, of Hong Kong, wrote, "The problem: keypads on calculators and telephones are upside-down left-right images of each other. If your letter writer is like me, who can use a calculator blindly throughout the day to key in numbers with few errors, then one partial solution is to hold the phone the other way around, such that the bottom of the keypad is now at the top."

But what about a name? Sharon S. Tonjes, of DeLand, Florida, wrote, "To borrow a term from my computer keyboard, your correspondent has a bad case of num lock." Two readers suggested fourgetfulness, and four digititis. Here the person taking top honors was one of six to submit the word, but she was the first: Emily Pepe, of Portland, Oregon, who came up with dialexia.

Now Jan Freeman, of Brookline, Massachusetts, writes, "We need a word for those periods in which every little thing that can go wrong does—orders get lost, the wrong washing machine is delivered, your ATM card is eaten, and so forth."

And Tom Okawara, of Evanston, Illinois, writes, "I'm sitting in my cubicle wondering why there isn't a word for people who send e-mail messages and then follow them up saying, 'Did you get my e-mail message?' It would certainly be nice to have a label for them."

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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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