Word Fugitives

Do you have a word fugitive you'd like The Atlantic's help finding?

Send an e-mail to Barbara Wallraff at msgrammar@theatlantic.com. Letters become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited.

Do cultural anthropologists know about this? Do laundry-detergent marketing executives? Going through the dirty-clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear is rampant in our land. At any rate, an astonishing number of people who responded to May's request for a word to describe this activity admitted that they drew on personal experience.

"Too often in the morning I find myself frantically pawing through the hamper, hoping that my mother-in-law won't come knocking at the door and catch me," Nils Jonsson, of Sugar Land, Texas, told us. The term that Jonsson (among others) coined to describe what he does is skivvy-dipping. "My husband snifferentiates the foul shirts from the merely stale while getting dressed in the morning," Jara Kern, of New York City, wrote. Denise Mathew, of Charlottesville, Virginia, confessed, "In my home this process occurs weekly at least." Taking a mind-over-matter approach, she calls what she does brainwashing.

Here's an optimist—Jessica Chaiken, of Washington, D.C., who wrote, "According to my current theory of laundry composting, the heat and pressure of the top layer of clothing will clean the bottom layer. I'm still working on this theory. I'm sure there's a government grant out there somewhere!" Here's a realist—Noel Trout, of Los Angeles, who wrote, "My wife, Cathy, and I have done our share of snifting while trying to find something suitable in the dirty-clothes pile (we won't even claim our dirty clothes make it into a hamper)." Here's an intellectual—William Weaver, of New York City, who wrote, "To call it a dirty-clothes hamper is to overstate the case. For many of us, the hamper is like an overstock bin where clothes go into a complex holding pattern, and a quick windventory will often produce a perfectly respectable outfit."

And here's someone remembering a morning she'd probably rather forget—Amy Herzberg, of Fayetteville, Arkansas. She wrote, "Recently I rummaged through my laundry hamper to find something to wear to an important meeting. In the kitchen I forced my husband to sniff my armpits to ensure my secret would be safe. At that exact moment our overnight guest appeared in the doorway. We all froze. No one spoke. Then we sat down to breakfast as if nothing had happened." Herzberg's term for what she was doing is desperspirationalizing.

Top honors go to Jill Geisler, of Bayside, Wisconsin. Although she wasn't the only person to come up with her coinage, she explained it succinctly and well: "This process is familiar to anyone who has or has been a teenager. I believe this laundry alternative is known as dry gleaning."

The other fugitive sought in May was a word for the "ability of a traffic light to sense my approach and turn red, knowing it is me." Not everyone who responded thought this was something worth naming. Scott Barolo, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote, "I believe I can diagnose the belief that traffic patterns revolve around oneself: carcissism."

Most respondents, however, were willing to go along with the idea that a traffic light might have paranormal powers. M. Vincenzo Scrimenti, of Erie, Pennsylvania, wrote, "Sometimes if I run through a yellow light for which I probably should have stopped, upon returning to that light I notice this phenomenon. I believe that the light thinks I have undermined its authority, and it becomes self-lighteous." Derek P. Pullan, of Heber City, Utah, wrote, "When I was a teenager, I worked two summers in the traffic division of the county public-works department. With this vast experience, I suggest the following word: semaphoreknowledge."

Holly Folk, of Bloomington, Indiana, wrote to say that she thinks "a conscious (and malicious?) traffic light is claret-voyant." Rick Blanco, of Warwick, Rhode Island, suggested, "The traffic light senses bad carma."

But top honors go to Max Frankel, of New York City, for his simple but elegant coinage redribution.

Now JOHN F. SCHILKE, of Oregon City, Oregon, asks, "What is a word to describe someone who, in looking up a word in the dictionary, is compelled to look across the page for another, equally interesting entry?"

And KATHERINE BRYANT, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, writes, "This seems to happen frequently. One says in an e-mail message that one is attaching some document or file and then hits the 'send' button before remembering to attach the file. What would be a term for this?"

Send words that meet John Schilke's or Katherine Bryant's needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or visit the Word Fugitives page on our Web site, at www.theatlantic.com/fugitives. Submissions must be received by October 31. Use the same addresses to submit word fugitives that you'd like The Atlantic's help in finding. Letters become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited.

Readers whose queries are published and those whose words are singled out for top honors will each receive, with our thanks, a selection of recent autographed books by Atlantic authors. The next installment's correspondents will be sent Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley; Sarge, by Scott Stossel; and The Outlaw Sea, by William Langewiesche.

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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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