Word Fugitives


Last October this page sought a word for a person "who, in looking up a word in the dictionary, is compelled to look across the page for another, equally interesting entry."

A number of readers thought of Webster surfer. Trish Anderton, of Berlin, New Hampshire, suggested word-dogging for the activity and used her coinage in a sentence: "Like a setter intent on sniffing out prey, she went word-dogging across the page." Ed Masten, of Memphis, wrote, "My own word search is often distracted by afliteration, like a bee in a bed of begonias." William R. Phillips, of Seattle, wrote, more ominously, "Some fear that excessive use of the dictionary leads to refer madness and is a gateway to stronger language."

Readers particularly liked travel-related coinages. Louis Greenwald, of Sacramento, wrote, "I have been doing that for years. I like to think of myself as a word traveler." Rob Longley, of Delmar, New York, wrote, "I think of myself as a speechcomber." Larry Malcus, of San Leandro, California, wrote, "I am afflicted with wanderlex." Steven L. Auslander, of Tucson, wrote, "If someone consulting the dictionary is doing so in order to add words to a spoken diatribe, he or she may be described as a hunter-blatherer. If, instead, he is genuinely interested in the other words on the page, he may be called a lexplorer."

Daniel J. Scheub, of Dixon, Illinois, suggested rubricnecker. David Terrell, of St. Louis, submitted addictionado, on behalf of the tenth-grade English class he teaches. Sara Stadler Nelson, of Atlanta, wrote, "My mother grew up in a tiny town in central Nebraska, and she entertained herself with the dictionary in precisely this way. She went on to earn a perfect score on the Test of Standard Written English. She was, of course, an autodidict."

Josh Simons, of Sharon, Massachusetts, suggested, "Perhaps this is an example of double-entry lookkeeping." That's cute. But the term that Steven Clemens, of Maplewood, Missouri, came up with is even cuter (and don't forget that we wanted a word for the person, not the activity): double-entry bookpeeker. Clemens takes top honors.

The other fugitive sought in October was a term for saying in an e-mail that a document or file is attached and then sending the message before remembering to attach the file. A number of readers who submitted responses by e-mail amused themselves by including a line like "For explanation, see attached document" but not attaching anything. Ha-ha!

Sends of omission and e-mnesia were popular suggestions. Richard Siegelman, of Plainview, New York, coined absentee-mail; Teri Viray, of San Diego, nonsendquitur; and Barbara Olsen, of Poughkeepsie, New York, deficit sending.

Carissa Wodehouse, of Portland, Oregon, came up with sentropy. She explained, "The definition of entropy in chemistry is the amount of thermal energy not available to do work, but dictionaries also give the meaning 'a measure of the loss of information in a transmitted message.'" W. Sean McLaughlin, of Alexandria, Virginia, wrote, "I was immediately inspired by the arcane grammatical term asyndeton [defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as 'the omission of conjunctions from constructions in which they would normally be used'] and thought minor modifications might yield the right meaning: a-senditon. An alternative derives from the medical community. If ataxia describes a lack of muscular coordination, perhaps lack of attaching a file might be called attachia."

Erik Bleich, of Middlebury, Vermont, was one of many people to suggest forgetfileness. He takes top honors for the word together with his explanation and a bonus word he supplied. Bleich wrote, "In all my years of using e-mail, I never once failed to attach a promised document. I prided myself on this point. Then I read your column. The very next day, I suffered my first case of forgetfileness. At least now I have a memorable term for when I forget." And his postscript: "If the oversight is of little consequence, it is mere forgetfileness. If it has serious repercussions, it is best called a docudrama."

Now Brendan J. O'Byrne, of Regina, Saskatchewan, writes, "The Irish term is witches' knickers. But on this side of the Atlantic we don't seem to have a name for the pollution of white disposable plastic bags caught in trees, flapping in the wind."

And Judith Kelman, of New York City, writes, "How about a word for that dicey moment when you should introduce two people but can't remember one of their names?"

Send words that meet Brendan O'Byrne's or Judith Kelman'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 March 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 Angry Wind, by Jeffrey Tayler; Road Work, by Mark Bowden; and Privilege, by Ross Douthat.

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)

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.

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?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more 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