Word Fugitives


In December a woman who likes to imitate peculiar sounds asked for a word on her husband’s behalf—one he could use when she does it in public, to tell her “in very specific terms to stop.” A number of readers found this scenario familiar—who knew? For instance, Mike Castellano, of Washington, D.C., wrote, “Growing up, my brother had the same malady, much to my annoyance on long road trips in the family station wagon. I suggest Onomatopete’s sake! as an appropriate expression.”

Onomatopoeia-related coinages were popular—among them imitatapoeia (from Josh Libresco, of San Ra­fael, Calif.), opprobromatopoeia (Kait­lin Costello and David Greenstein, of Chicago), and wannamatopoeia (Dan Schechter, of Los Alamitos, Calif.). Marcia Joyce, of Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote, “To dissuade one from imitating sounds, try nonomatopoeia.”

Birds also inspired readers to flights of fancy. Chandler Fulton, of New York City, suggested that the woman had “a case of mockingbird flu.” Others diagnosed her ailment as parrotonitis; Howard Posner, of Tampa, Fla., suggested that she was parrotphrasing. Still other coinages involved mynahs. And Gary Levell, of Kirkland, Wash., wrote, “What’s wrong with Not a peep?” But the idea that takes top honors makes reference to a different bird that’s known as a mimic. Sheila McGrath, of Madison, Wis., wrote, “When she starts to imitate noises, her husband should just address her as starling.”

Also sought in December was a word for essential technological skills or knowledge destined to become obsolete. Merlin Camozzi, of Los Angeles, wrote in to question the very premise. “Those of us who grew up with technology,” he wrote, “know that all well-designed user interfaces share certain basic attributes that transcend specific manufacturers or technologies. We can pick up a new PDA, DVD player, or digital camera and figure out almost immediately how to do what we want to do. I call this ability techknow.” Merlin, FYI: You’re one of about two readers who took this point of view, as against uncounted numbers who could relate.

Jonathan Barnard, of Asheville, N.C., shared both a word and some advice: “To avoid having to learn gizmomentary knowledge, just play dumb. Rely on family members and officemates. Find the ones with overbearing senses of technological mastery and flatter them.” Greg Davies, of Sydney, Australia, wrote, “I suggest obsolessons. I suspect this is a concept that has broader application than just outmoded electronics. In my case, this word would also encapsulate 90 percent of my formal schooling, the things I had to learn in my first two careers, and much of what I learned from previous relationships.”

Neandertechnology (Joe Ferraro, of Audubon, Pa.) and dinolore (John A. Anderson, of Fort Wayne, Ind.) are delightful coinages that, unfortunately, miss the mark, because the word requested is for skills that have yet to go extinct. Some readers played around with expire and expertise, to get the likes of expiretise, expiration data (John S. Stevens, of Chicago), and soon-to-be- ex-pertise (Steve Harrell, of Seattle). Others tinkered with good old-fashioned know-how, coining no-how, knew-how (both from Robert Frenkel, of Sydney, Australia), and nano-how (Ben O’Donnell, of Avon, Conn.). Snehlata Champakalakshmi, of New York City, wasn’t the only reader to suggest the apt now-how, but she was the first—so Champakalakshmi takes top honors.

Now J. Beaman, of San Francisco, writes: “Any idea if there’s a word for that guy (or girl) who, once he starts dating someone new, abandons all of his friends? I hate that guy.”

And Clela Reed, of Athens, Ga., writes, “I’m looking for a word for that happy feeling of kinship one feels for the driver of a car of the same make and model as one’s own. This seems fairly universal and sometimes leads to honks, thumbs-ups, and goofy behavior.”

Send words that meet J. Beaman’s or Clela Reed’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 May 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 Are We Rome?, by Cullen Murphy; On The Wealth of Nations, by P. J. O’Rourke; and my own Word Fugitives.

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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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