Word Fugitives


In June we asked for a word to describe "the frantic period of time many families experience each morning prior to leaving home." Replies streamed in from as far away as Santiago, Chile, and Chennai, India. The neologism submitted by more readers than any other was pandemornium, though pandemorningum was also popular. A number of A.M.-related creations turned up as well, such as A.M. mayhem, submitted by many; A.M.ania, from Liz Theran, of Boston; and the subtle mA.M., from Sarah Routh, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Susan Montag, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, managed to combine the pandemonium and A.M. ideas, creating panda.m.onium.

Breakfast-related coinages proved to be another fruitful line of thought. Wreckfast, fast break, and scrambled legs were each submitted by more than one person. Toast-haste came from John Kirwan-Taylor, of New Orleans; Special Chaos from Pete McPherson, of Pegram, Tennessee; and javavoom from Bear Braumoeller, of Roslindale, Massachusetts.

Arriving in the same batch of mail as one or two of the suggestions above was a review copy of the forthcoming book Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, by Allan Metcalf. The book, though it is thoughtful and lively, brought unwelcome news. In Metcalf's view, the kinds of coinages Word Fugitives tends to request and to publish show virtually no potential to become permanent additions to our vocabulary. As the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, Metcalf has overseen Words of the Year votes at the ADS's annual conventions during the past twelve years, and he has long pondered why some new words catch on and others don't. Among his conclusions is that "a word that fills a gap in the vocabulary seems to have no particular advantage over one that doesn't"—darn. And "a word has a better chance for success if it is modest and inconspicuous than if it is showy and clever"—double darn.

Now, of course Metcalf is right that an invention as showy as Around They Whirled, Inanely Dazed is unlikely to become the standard term for the frantic morning period—and never mind that the family of J. D. Asis, of Brookline, Massachusetts, delighted in calling it that, "all being fans of Jules Verne," as Asis wrote. Might brood awakening, though, be modest and inconspicuous enough to have staying power? Probably not—but oh, well. It earns top honors for its creator, Nancy Pickard, of Prairie Village, Kansas.

The other June fugitive request was "a verb to describe the raising of the eyebrows and turning down of the mouth to signify that one is impressed." Various readers pointed out that the gesture in question is a lot like a moue—which is sometimes defined as "a grimace," sometimes as "a pout." Karen B. Low, of Great Falls, Montana, wrote, "I suggest woue, a combination of the French moue and the very American word whoo!"

Andrew Friede, of Atlanta, suggested smwow: "Try to say it without raising your eyebrows and turning down your mouth. I can't. Just as frown and smile, when said, contort the face appropriately, so does smwow!" Several people proposed wow-brow; Janet Testerman, of Naples, Florida, praised awebrow; and David Kyler, of Saint Simons Island, Georgia, wincing in paean.

Taking top honors here is Al Skinner, of Mercer Island, Washington, who wrote, "Raising the eyebrows and turning down the corners of the mouth—who does it better than Bill Cosby? Make it a verb: to Cosby."

Now Catherine Mehno, of Weehawken, New Jersey, writes, "I'd like a word for that feeling that you always arrive after the heyday, the boom, or the free ride. For example, when I started college, the drinking age was raised; when I graduated from law school, the job market disappeared. Now I am trying to buy a house, and prices are soaring. This is more than disappointment. It's about missing a departure when you've never been advised of the schedule."

And Jean P. Bell, of Ontario, New York, writes, "Is there a word to describe someone who can read but can't pronounce words? One such person I know, who learned English from books, says things like 'Follow the gweed at the cathedral.'"

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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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