Word Fugitives


In the July/August issue, we sought a name for the “tai chi–like gyrations” required to activate an automatic faucet or towel dispenser. Note the high degree of difficulty demanded of coiners: The wanted word has to apply both to getting wet and to towel-drying.

A term that applies to neither but merits an honorable mention anyway came from Geoffrey Litwack, of Los Angeles, who wrote, “When I pass my hand under an automatic dryer in a public restroom, I call it a heat wave.” Closer to the mark were towel chi, from Gunnar Miller, of Frankfurt, Germany; dry chi, from more than one reader; and hand-dry coordination, from Marc Werlinsky, of Broomall, Pa.

Among faucet-only coinages, the most commonly suggested was tap dancing. More idiosyncratically, Julian Adler, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., wrote, “I think the term should be insinktual responses. On a bad day, however, the more appropriate term might be debasinment.”

Christian Madsen, of La Canada, Calif., covered both faucet and towel territory but took two coinages to do it: “How about the movements derived from ancient Asian fighting techniques, fau-cetsu and drykwondo?” Elaine Spiller, of Durham, N.C., got them both into one with digitsu. Joseph Grayson, of Far Rockaway, N.Y., wrote, “I thought since the purpose of the hands-free is, in part, to be more sanitary, a good term for this activity would be germnastics.” And Lisa Litzinger, of Philadelphia, wrote, “When trying to coax water and towels from such devices, my method is to wave at the thing just like I’d wave hello to a person. So I’d like to call it the Hi Gene wave.” John Ramos, of Duluth, Minn., wrote, “The elaborate performance one must go through to attract the attention of a paper- or water-dispensing sensor is known as a come-on.”

But Daniel Okrent, of South Wellfleet, Mass., takes top honors. He wrote, “I call this kind of tai chi handwrithing—and when it’s so frustrating it causes me to mutter oaths, it’s cursive handwrithing.”

Also requested in the July/August issue was a word for “unpleasant occurrences that come with a job”—that is, a word for the opposite of a perquisite. Here the most popular suggestion was cringe benefit. Arno McTavin, of Longmont, Colo., proposed fringe badefit; Ann Rock, of Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., the rather erudite not-a-bene; and a few readers the Judeo-Christian trials of job.

Bruce Evans, of Mesa, Ariz., suggested dreckuisite; Apryl Lamb, of Durham, N.C., suquisite; and more than one reader irquisite. Gail Wells, of Corvallis, Ore., wrote, “I’d call them stuckquisites, as in ‘Guess I’m stuckquisite again.’” David Noller, of Burbank, Calif., wrote, “This is known as a gozewit—as in, ‘Hey buddy, dat goze wit’ da territory!’”

All lots of fun, but would anyone who heard or read those words understand them? Laura Steele, of Mishawaka, Ind., takes top honors for icks of the trade.

Now Debbie Kinerk, of Tacoma, Wash., writes, “After years of believing that malinger means ‘to tarry beyond one’s welcome’ or ‘to live an excessively long life,’ I was disappointed to learn that the word really means ‘shirk.’ Can we invent a word for the meaning I misunderstood?”

And Tom Gordon, of Arlington, Va., writes, “I’m going through a divorce and am looking for a word to describe my soon-to-be-ex. Nothing nasty, please—we’re on good terms with each other. What word would mean the opposite of fiancé(e)?”

Send words that meet Debbie Kinerk’s or Tom Gordon’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 December 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; God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, by Hanna Rosin; 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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