Word Fugitives


In March we asked for “a word to de­scribe a kind of typographical error: hitting a function key by mistake while typing on a computer,” thereby causing the computer to “start taking insane actions.” The standard arrangement of computer or typewriter keys is, of course, called qwerty, after the sequence of letters at the upper left of the keyboard. Hence Thomas Fowler, of Lake Jackson, Texas, wrote, “When you accidentally hit a function key while typing on a computer, it almost always makes the computer behave disqwerty­ously.” Susan Chilton, of Kitchener, Ontario, sug­gested the term qwer-key keyboarding, and Amanda Petrucelli, of Plymouth, Ind., qwertastrophe. Computers assign nu­merical values to letters following the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, or ASCII. Hence John Ciccarelli, of Palo Alto, Calif., wrote, “Ah, you mean when everything you type from then on looks somehow asciiew, causing a feeling of disqwertytude? I believe the term is numb lock.”

Jerry Schoen, of New Salem, Mass., sur­mised that the reader who originally asked for the word “inadvertently invoked a flub-routine.” Quintin J. Maltby, of Toronto, Ontario, thought that “he must have accidentally hit the Defeat key.” John Scott, of Kensington, Md., suggested, “How about saying ‘Whoops, I hit a misfunction key.’” And Chris Rooney, of Berkeley, Calif., wrote, “Since I am known to swear when I mistakenly hit a function key, I suppose that typographical error would best be described as a pre-curser.

Mark Brice, of Austin, Texas, shared some actual computer-speak: fat fingering the keyboard. He wrote, “That’s certainly not a coinage—I’ve spent 23 years working with and on computers and I’ve heard this one often.” The Computer Desktop Encyclopedia confirms Brice’s information, explaining that fat finger “refers to accidentally pressing the wrong key on a keyboard and entering an erroneous command that causes a serious problem.” The Web site Word Spy points out that one can also fat finger a telephone keypad, resulting in fat finger dialing—which is either “a telephone scam in which a company sets up a toll number that is one digit different than a popular number, so that the company earns money when customers accidentally mis-dial the legitimate number” or “mis-dialing a phone number in this manner.”

But we digress. Kathleen DeBold, of Burtonsville, Md., takes top honors. She wrote, “Hitting the function key on a computer by mistake can cause mass destruction of the document you’re working on. That’s why it is classified as cyber errorism.”

The other March request was for “a word that means nostalgia for a time when I wasn’t alive.” This put more than a few readers in mind of the poem “Miniver Cheevy,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. (Sample verse: “Miniver loved the days of old / When swords were bright and steeds were prancing; / The vision of a warrior bold / Would set him dancing.”) Thus were coined the likes of mischeevyousness (by Arthur Saltzman, of Joplin, Mo.) and cheevery, cheevish, and cheevement (all by Bruce L. Bush, of Highland Park, N.J.).

Joan Biddle, of New York City, wrote, “I often feel this; I think it’s very real! The word I would use is reincarniscence, a fusion of reincarnation and reminiscence.” Richard Ulyate, of Torrance, Calif., called what we’re looking for “an interest in the prenaissance, which, for example, might be the Beatles for some and Teddy Roosevelt for others.” More than one person proposed notstalgia and wistful thinking. Lauren Lilly, of Boise, Idaho, proposed histfulness; Tom Linde, of Seattle, Wash., proposed antedelusian; Dave Warshaw, of Annapolis, Md., halcyonation; Charles Browne, of Peacham, Vt., preposterity; and Aaron Riccio, of New York City, precedentimental.

These are swell, but they don’t quite get the point across. Diane P. Genereux, of Seattle, Wash., takes top honors for her lucid coinage chronderlust.

Now Larry Herbst, of Pasadena, Calif., writes, “As a relatively new parent, I find myself groping for a word that describes the mass of items required for the simplest outing with a newborn: extra diapers, wipes, toys, playpen, baby carrier, etc. Whereas we used to be able to just hop in the car and go, we now have to gather an amazing amount of clutter.”

And Kathy Law, of Casablanca, Morocco, writes, “There ought to be a word for the tendency my father-in-law has to buy much more produce at the farmers’ market than he could ever eat.”

Send words that meet Larry Herbst’s or Kathy Law’s needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, P.O. Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, 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 To Hell With All That, by Caitlin Flanagan; Guests of the Ayatollah, by Mark Bowden; and my own Word Fugitives.

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)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities

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