Word Fugitives


In March we requested a word for a "tendency to make more mistakes ... if a very critical person is watching." Along with aspiring words, a flood of descriptions of what it's like to have this affliction poured in. For instance, Javan Kienzle, of Birmingham, Michigan, wrote, "It is near impossible for me to work in the kitchen if anyone else is in there—this from my childhood when my mother always commented on the way I did things. If anyone watches me work, I inevitably end up cutting myself, burning myself, dropping something, or breaking something." Peter Morris, of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, wrote, "I often find myself unable to sign my own name when being stared at by an incommunicative bank teller or bureaucrat."

Two readers reported that according to They Have a Word for It, by Howard Rheingold, in German fisselig has the meaning wanted. A few others pointed out that among sports fans, choke nearly fills the bill. But readers also came up with a wide range of apt new coinages, though some were for the state or process or cause or effect of bungling under supervision rather than for the tendency to bungle, as requested. Rita Kennedy, of Rockland, Massachusetts, suggested abutter-fingers; Rebecca Cosgrove, of New Milford, Connecticut, botchful eye; Vera K. Cobb, of Ipswich, Massachusetts, bungle of nerves; and Lynn Herrick, of Northville, Michigan, glarer-prone. Several readers suggested sage fright; Patrick Green, of Dripping Springs, Texas, stuporvised; and Art Scherer, of Efland, North Carolina, tsk-oriented. Jim Tanner, of Fort Collins, Colorado, wrote, "I tend to become particularly witless while pursuing tasks in the presence of a critical witness; hence my witlessness is compounded—hence witnesslessness."

And top honors go to David Sonstroem, of Storrs, Connecticut, for his deft and witty term carper-fumble syndrome.

The second word fugitive sought in March was one meaning "to go to do something and return having absentmindedly done one or more other things instead." Matt Mayberry, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, had no verb to suggest, though he acutely feels the need for one. He wrote, "My colleagues and I were discussing just this tendency. I work in a history museum surrounded by a wide variety of fascinating artifacts, documents, problems, and projects. We often set out from our work areas determined to accomplish one thing, only to return some significant time later having taken a circuitous route through the building. When we do return to our desks, not only is our original task unfulfilled, but we often can't recall why we left in the first place."

Mike Olesak, of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, wrote, "I just saw a comic of Beetle Bailey in which General Halftrack gets sidetracked when he leaves the kitchen to go get the paper and returns, nine distracted frames later, with a flyswatter. I've experienced this phenomenon myself. It seems as though the mind gets spaced out on tangents; for a split second you seem to be in another world. So my submission would be nether-minded."

Task turned up in many submissions. For instance, that clever Jim Tanner, coiner of witnesslessness, dubbed the "much-achieved if not much-sought-after capability" in question muddletitasking. Sam Putnam, of Vallejo, California, suggested alti-tasking; Janet Watson, of Norwell, Massachusetts, faulty-tasking; and a number of readers mistask.

And here Marshall Arbitman, of New York City, takes top honors for his straight-to-the-point coinage onthewaylaid.

Now Sriram Khe, of Eugene, Oregon, writes, "I wonder if there is a word for what happens when teachers like me grade papers at the end of terms: the incorrect information in students' papers makes me begin to question my own knowledge. For instance, after grading quite a few papers I begin to ask myself if it is effect or affect; does Switzerland really border a sea? Is there a word to describe this acute sense of 'unlearning'?"

And Bruce Gelder, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes, "I'd like a word to denote the tendency of traffic to cluster around and behind highway patrol cars on rural interstates because no one dares to pass the trooper vehicle at a significant speed (that is, the speed at which the car was traveling before it caught up with the patrol car). I commute daily through rural Iowa and see this occur frequently."

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In