Word Fugitives


On the April Word Fugitives page a soccer coach requested a word analogous to ambidextrous but having to do with feet. John Siddeek, of Grand Junction, Colorado, responded, "I, too, am a soccer coach, and each season I give an award to the player who is the best at using both feet. I have titled this at various times the Ambipedal Award, the Bipedal Award, the Amphibian Award, and the Ambipedarocious Award." Siddeek went on to make a point also made by a number of other readers. For instance, Philip L. Salgado, of Spokane, Washington, wrote, "The word ambidextrous makes no reference to the hand: ambi- 'both,' dexter 'right.' Could not ambidextrous be used by a soccer coach to describe the desired skill and perhaps teach a little language as well?"

Readers had fun coining the likes of switch kickers, bipedept, omnbootsman, bilegual, and gambidextrous. But as it turned out, a less inventive approach achieved the goal brilliantly, earning top honors for the fellow who suggested it. "There is in fact a very simple term that is used by all coaches, players, and fans in the UK," wrote Allan Sutherland, of Aberdeen, Scotland. "It is two-footed, as in 'He's a two-footed player,' which is not so much stating the obvious as describing the ability to use either foot equally well. Though I can think of no other pastime except perhaps flirting under restaurant tables which can benefit from this skill, I would like both to inform you that the term is standard in football and to suggest that it might be used for all foot activities."

In response to the other April Word Fugitives question, "Is there an antonym for synergy?," Dan Littman, of Oakland, California, wrote, "My suggestion is not a new word and it isn't funny or flashy, but it is precise: entropy is the dispersion of energy, the exact opposite of synergy's accumulation of energy." Thomas Ferrell, of Miami, reported, "My dictionary gives antienergistic as an antonym for synergistic, in the sense of yielding to energy applied from without." Chaos, cosinergy, and syntropy were some other physics-major-type words proposed.

Emily Scott, of Newton, Massachusetts, wrote, "My dictionary defines synergy as 'combined or cooperative action or force,' and so in my quest for an antonym, divorce came quickly to mind." Brooks Fudenberg, of San Francisco, wrote, "Too easy! The antonym for synergy must be saintgy." Readers whose minds tend in yet other directions offered up such suggestions as government, bureaucracy, and Congress.

Here top honors go to someone who answered the question with another question. Although other readers submitted similar responses, Bhagwan Chowdhry, of Los Angeles, got his in early and phrased it neatly. "Is looking for an antonym for synergy," he asked, "equivalent to looking for a synonym for antergy?"

Of course it would never occur to you to ask Word Fugitives either of the following: (1) what to call a boyfriend or girlfriend who is well beyond the age of being a boy or girl, or (2) what would make a good sex-neutral singular pronoun, to use instead of he or she, s/he, or the increasingly popular but ungrammatical they. More than a few readers have already done so, however—and they're just never going to get an answer. For decades now our entire culture has been mulling over these questions, countless ideas have been floated, and none has managed to sail triumphantly into American idiom. Other questions about human relationships and what to call people, though, may yet repay inquiry. Here are two word fugitives that have also been sought by many, and apologies to everyone else who has submitted them that his or her name does not appear here.

BARBARA KELLY, of Palo Alto, California, writes, "The Russian father-in-law of my recently married son asked me what the English word is to describe our new relationship to each other as parents of the bride and groom. He offered the Russian word svaty, since there doesn't seem to be an English word."

And JACK COLE, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, writes, "For 'mom and dad' we have parents; for 'brothers and sisters' we have siblings. What word do we have for 'aunts and uncles'?" Anyone who also suggests a word for "nieces and nephews collectively" earns extra credit.

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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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