Word Fugitives


In May a reader asked, "What is the word to describe the moment right before you are about to do something terribly stupid, when everything runs in slow motion?" Other readers, too, have need of such a word, as these examples of situations that cry out for one demonstrate.

David Noller, of Burbank, California, wrote, "I once was absentmindedly dangling my arm out the fully open window of my car—until a moment of awareness that lasted a millisecond before the automated car-wash nozzle began to fire at high velocity one foot from my face."

Jeanne Flavin, of New York City, reported that she "once slammed down the childproof cap onto a large bottle of Tylenol, catching the web of my hand between the lid and the bottle, with the lid in the locked position." She then "desperately searched for a way to pry it off, during which entire time the bottle of pills was shaking like a maraca."

And Henry Evans, D.M.D., of Chewelah, Washington, wrote, "As a young orderly, I once observed a physician accidentally squirt a large amount of antiseptic soap into a patient's eye, thinking he was using a sterile saline rinse. I knew before it happened that he was going to do it and that it was wrong, but it was too late to stop him or even to say anything."

For some reason, word fugitives about all sorts of things tend to elicit plays on déjà vu. This one was déjà vu all over again: several readers suggested déjà rue or déjà fou; Bill Parton, of Russellville, Arkansas, offered déjàphooey; and yet other readers proposed déjà expressions too impolite to print. A number of Simpsons fans also wrote in, invoking Homer's deathless D'oh! and variants thereof. A few readers blended the two concepts. For instance, Matt Breaden, of Lake Oswego, Oregon, wrote, "I am a longtime fan of The Simpsons, and so the moment before doing something stupid I often feel a profound sense of déjà d'oh."

Suggestions that lack any particular cultural referents include pregret, submitted by many readers; dunderstruck, by Jon Miller, of New Haven, Connecticut; slipupiphany, by Kenneth Tishgart, of Ross, California; and, particularly to describe "a social blunder," time-lapse faux pas-graphy, by Paul Liversage, of Fargo, North Dakota.

All well and good, but Tim Sargent, of Keams Canyon, Arizona, takes top honors. He wrote, "An all-encompassing term for these moments of stopeless hupidity might be instant regretification."

Another reader, Roger Wilson, requested help in wording a personal ad; he was looking for a "flattering" word to describe a female shape between "slender" and "full-figured." This elicited a bit of feminist commentary. Denise Mathew, of Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote, "I was sad to see that you printed Roger Wilson's awful query. Please tell him to try using the word Barbie." Most women who responded, however, took no offense. For instance, Anne Quigg, of Malden, Massachusetts, wrote, "My entry is Our Bodies, Our 12s." And Sharon Urquhart, of Graton, California, wrote, "The woman he seeks is a femme mid-all. Thanks for amusing me!"

The most popular coinages, submitted by members of both sexes, were belle-curved and mediyum or mediyummy. And here's a nice try that, alas, probably wouldn't get the point across: Jim Richards, of Rexburg, Idaho, suggested nonplussed.

It is impossible to deny David Olivett, of Emporium, Pennsylvania, top honors. He sent in a poem, explaining, "I could not think of a one-word adjective to aid Roger Wilson in his plight. However, he is free to use this bit of doggerel: 'While the violin is small and sleek, / And the double bass broad and mellow, / The one true love that I do seek / Should mostly resemble a cello.'"

Now Luella Schmidt, of Madison, Wisconsin, writes, "My husband and I have been searching for a term to describe the burned bit of skin on the roof of your mouth that you get when you fail to let your slice of pizza cool adequately."

And Jane Evans, of Kingston, Washington, writes, "What is the word for the reflection of moonlight on water and the way it follows you exactly as you are walking down the beach or a dock?"

Send words that meet Luella Schmidt's or Jane Evans'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 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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