Word Fugitives


In March, Word Fugitives sought an American equivalent for the Irish term witches' knickers, which refers to "disposable plastic bags caught in trees." This earned us a scolding from Kathleen Dotoli, of Long Branch, New Jersey, who wrote, "I do not believe witches' knickers should be messed with, as it is a perfect description." Lee Buenaventura, of Wellesley, Massachusetts, felt nearly the same way, but she suggested giving the term a "tweak" to Americanize it: witches' britches.

Then again, reports of existing American terms arrived from all over. People on both coasts and in between submitted urban tumbleweed. R. Matthew Green, of West Kingston, Rhode Island, said that in his state "bags caught in trees, flapping in the wind, are called shoppers' kites." Sheilah Zimpel, of Raleigh, North Carolina, wrote, "Here in the South we call that white trash." Samuel Hoffman, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, wrote, "Plastic bags trapped in trees and along fence lines are called bag hawks."

This query also presented an unexpected opportunity for score-settling among interstate rivals. Kristen Lummis, of Grand Junction, Colorado, wrote, "A plastic bag caught in a tree (or a barbed-wire fence), flapping in the wind, is known as the state bird of Wyoming." And Richard R. Crowder, of Lynchburg, Virginia, proposed the term West Virginia state flag.

But surely a good term should apply more broadly—even outside the United States, especially since the person who requested the word in the first place is Canadian. Suggestions that would be appropriate almost anywhere include totebirds, from George Campbell, of St. Paul, Minnesota; retailed hawks, from Daniel Scheub, of Dixon, Illinois; trash kites, from Linda Muhlhausen, of Tinton Falls, New Jersey; treecycled plastic, from Jonathan Stone, of Annapolis, Maryland; Glad® rags, from John R. Ehrenfeld, of Lexington, Massachusetts; and detreetus, submitted by more than one person.

Daniel Brown, of San Carlos, California, wrote, "I suggest fooliage, since the bags come from morons careless with their trash." Rob Barendse, of Granville, New York, suggested plastoliage. Can you see it coming? That's right: fouliage. Michael Abrams, of Custer, Washington, was the first person to send in this coinage, so he takes top honors.

The other word sought in March was one to describe "that dicey moment when you should introduce two people but can't remember one of their names." This earned us a scolding too. Michael Huston, of Joplin, Missouri, wrote, "A strange word indeed. If it really must be a word for 'that dicey moment,' then I have no entry. However, it seems that whomnesia is the word for the introducer's affliction." Good point, Michael. It wasn't clear whether the fugitive word should describe the moment per se, what one might perform instead of an introduction, or one's state of mind in that dicey moment. Therefore we'll accept anything halfway relevant. Namenesia was far and away the commonest suggestion.

Susan K. Costello, of New York City, proposed persona non data. Peter Anderson, of Joliet, Illinois, proposed nomstruck. Carolyn Coleburn, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, wrote, "May I suggest nomenclutchure? It happens to me all the time." Josh Dodes, of Burlington, Vermont, wrote, "If meeting people and making introductions is the key to successful networking, this is clearly notworking."

Patty Namm, of New York City, wrote, "That dicey moment is called a mumbleduction." Barbara Jacobs, of Medfield, Massachusetts, said it was an introdeduction; Bonnie Brueckner, of La Jolla, California, an introdiction; and Emily Etheridge, of Louisville, Kentucky, an ain'troduction.

Who deserves top honors for nailing our admittedly vaguely defined idea? Let's give them to Peter Gaffney, of Los Angeles, for a pair of coinages that together cover the possibilities pretty well. Gaffney wrote, "If you weasel out of the situation by contriving to get someone else to provide the names, it's introducking. Introduping is giving the appearance of making an introduction without actually so doing."

Now Patricia L. Sierzant, of Malvern, Pennsylvania, writes, "I job-share a position. I often have to refer to the lady I job-share with. I wonder if there is a better term for her. Someone suggested colleague, but I don't think that quite does it. Any suggestions?"

And Margaret Stacy, of Avon, Connecticut, writes, "How about a term for a smell that you recognize but can't place?"

Send words that meet Patricia Sierzant's or Margaret Stacy'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 August 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 Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, by Christopher Hitchens; Imperial Grunts, by Robert D. Kaplan; and 1491, by Charles C. Mann.

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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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