Word Fugitives


Who knew that people could get so worked up about the domestic behavior of total strangers? In May a woman des­cribed her husband as a “pack rat” and asked for a word for someone, like her, with the opposite tendency.

M. Gunnison Collins, of New York City, wrote, “Having for years resented the unsavory implications of pack rat, I relish the chance to label my opposites, who I’ve always felt lacked some basic degree of human warmth and material sentimentality. I propose we call them minimatons.”

Jim Tanner, of Fort Collins, Colo., wrote, “My condolences to the pack rat; his wife obviously doesn’t appreciate domestic sagacity. Being able to keep stuff, and lots of it, is the reason one maintains a home rather than living in a pod. If God had intended for us to be so cavalier about our possessions, He would not have given us basements or all those little cardboard boxes we’ll someday need. The man has married a classic domorexic.”

Frank Capuzzi, of Severna Park, Md., wrote, “I’ve had a term for years, and silently invoke it every time my wife accuses me of being a pack rat—which is often. If I’m a pack rat, she’s a wouldchuck.” (This word was a popular suggestion.)

For obvious reasons, a number of other responses shared the animal theme. Eileen Dolan, of Merchantville, N.J., coined hurl squirrel; Ethan Keyes, of Hallowell, Maine, yield mouse; Barbara Victor, of Arvada, Colo., meager beaver; Chris Rooney, of Berkeley, Calif., sparsupial; and Cecelia Burokas, of Chicago, let-gopher.

Uniquely, Ray Larsen, of Bozeman, Mont., offered “a little testimony in defense of the often-maligned pack rat,” genus Neotoma. He wrote, “These creatures usually are described as thieves and hoarders, because they take things for which they have no apparent use. However, sometimes they engage in simple trading. When I was a youngster, my aunt and uncle had a cabin in the mountains. Their tool shed was an occasional target for pack rats, and tools would disappear from the shed. But sometimes other objects would appear in place of the missing items. On one noteworthy occasion the missing tool was a cold chisel, an object considerably heavier than the average pack rat. The raiding rodent left a stick of dynamite in exchange.”

Great story, even if it is off topic. Back to business: Top honors go to Thomas S. G. Lawrence, of Staten Island, N.Y., for his highly original and funny coinage heave-homemaker.

Also sought in May was a term for the “property in some relationships that allows two people who haven’t spoken in years to simply dive into conversation as if they’ve not been apart.” William R. Phillips, of Seattle, proposed belongevity and extendship; Penny Geoghan, of Owl’s Head, N.Y., instimacy; Jeff Toder, of Calabasas, Calif., simchatico; Caroline Harris, of Lafayette, Calif., spantaneity; and Patti Trahern, of Prescott, Ariz., transfriendmentalism.

Top honors go to Norm Tabler, of Indianapolis, because his word is so much fun to say. He wrote, “In Latin nunc pro tunc means ‘now for then.’ The concept here is nuncprotunctuality.”

Now Pete Anderson, of Joliet, Ill., writes, “I’m looking for a word that describes the one husband within a social group whose excessive generosity or thoughtfulness toward his wife makes all the other husbands in the group look very bad by comparison. I’m thinking of, say, the guy who buys his wife a big diamond ring for their tenth anniversary or jets her off to Paris for an impromptu romantic vacation, while the rest of the wives have to settle for flowers bought at the gas station on the husband’s way home from work, or a fishing vacation in Wisconsin.”

And Daniel J. Scheub, of Dixon, Ill., writes, “Does the barrier erected by headphones have a name? As a semipermanent resident of this tiny country, I often wonder.” We’ll accept names either for the barrier or for the “country” that a headphone wearer inhabits.

Send words that meet Pete Anderson’s or Daniel Scheub’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 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 Blind Into Baghdad, by James Fallows; Presidential Doodles, text by David Greenberg; 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