Word Fugitives

Baby making; turn off the phone!

In October, a couple asked for a “polite but meaningful phrase” to convey that they were trying to conceive a child. As usual, a nay-saying contingent weighed in. Becky Heydemann, of Evanston, Ill., for instance, wrote, “The only people who should have any ideas at all about one’s sex life, in regard to children or anything else, are the participants and their immediate families.” Jon-Mark C. Patterson, of Loveland, Colo., was equally but differently critical. He wrote, “There is a word for the condition of married people having sex and being open to the possibility that they will have a baby together. That word is normal.”

Also as usual, clever puns and coinages poured in, many of them apt enough if you know what they’re supposed to mean but probably baffling if you don’t. Tom Toce, of New York City, wrote, “I immediately thought of unionizing, especially because the goal is, well, organized labor.” Laura Whitman, of Redwood City, Calif., wrote, “In our group when a couple is married and everyone is wondering what their plans are in regard to procreation, we always ask if they are in the product research or product development phase. Early product development refers to your correspondents’ criteria.” Jessie Kimber, of Ecaussinnes, Belgium, wrote, “My husband and I called it baking, which is an abbreviated baby-making and also hints at the fact that we were trying to put a bun in the oven.”

As for suggestions that were both apt and transparent, Barnabas Sprinkle, of Carrollton, Ga., wrote, “When we shared that we were mating expectantly, we received both chuckles and instant understanding.” Joseph S. Santavicca, of Calabash, N.C., proposed exercising their stork options. And Marc L. Greenberg, of Lawrence, Kan., takes top honors for his brainstorm: “This could be a zygotic episode, particularly if the parents are crazy in love.”

Also in October, a teacher sought a word for the skill of “rapidly turning off a cell phone that rings at an inappropriate moment.” Here, too, there were naysayers—such as Karl Petruso, of Arlington, Texas, who wrote, “I am unable to distill this complex phenomenon to one word. Instead, I would offer the following: Get out of this room. You may return if and when you master the simple courtesy of turning off your phone before you enter my class.

Cynthia Mulcahy, of Costa Mesa, Calif., wrote, “As a functional illiterate when it comes to technology, all I know to do is open and then close my cell phone when it needs to be quickly silenced. Being also easily amused, I think of this action as playing the sile-phone.” Todd Stockslager, of Raleigh, N.C., argued in favor of broadening the meaning of prestidigitation. Cellerity, demobilization, having good ringflexes, and rapid bye movement were popular suggestions.

Roger Jasaitis, of West Wardsboro, Vt., takes top honors for a good coinage plus one of the better explanations. He wrote, “While I was attending a Quaker worship service (which is predominantly silent), the Friend sitting next to me had his cell phone ring and scrambled to turn it off. This action prompted the word tone-deft to come to mind. You could say that it was divinely inspired.”

Brenda Buescher, of Chanhassen, Minn., writes, “I’d like a word for my husband’s uncanny ability to ask if I need help with a household task at the exact moment that I am finishing it.” Men who take offense at this request are welcome to submit words for women’s uncanny abilities.

Ralph Protsik, of Brookline, Mass., writes, “This fugitive was actually suggested by Dick Cav­ett in a recent New York Times blog posting, but it’s too good not to forward to you: ‘The unfortunate telling of a story that one realizes too late is ill-suited to the occasion.’”

Send words that meet Brenda Buescher’s or Ralph Protsik’s needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic, 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 March 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, More Words That Make a Difference, by Robert and Carol Greenman; 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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