Word Fugitives


Illustration by Greg Clarke

In December, a reader going through a divorce requested a word for his soon-to-be-ex—a sort of opposite of fiancé(e). Unintended, detrothed, fleeancé(e), financé(e), prevorcé(e), future former, and the text-message-friendly ex-to-be (x2b) were some of the most popular suggestions. Karina Borowicz, of Strafford, N.H., came up with departner; Matthew Clark, of Boston, ex pre facto; and Robert Flint, of Cambridge, Mass., dumpling.

Christal Smith, of Los Angeles, wrote, “I go the acronym route, so Soon To Be Ex-Husband becomes STBEH—pronounced ‘stubby,’ which has the built-in benefit of making him wince whenever I use it.” Mary K. D. D’Rozario, of Raleigh, N.C., wrote, “My state requires one year of separation for no-fault divorce, during which time I referred to my husband as my exish. It rarely required explanation.”

Chandler Fulton, of New York City, turned his thoughts to metaphor. He wrote, “A soon-to-be-ex is one who retains the title of husband or wife but has effectively surrendered any attendant power or privileges—in other words, a lame-duck spouse.” Partly but not entirely because this is an election year, Fulton takes top honors.

The other December request was for a word that means “to tarry beyond one’s welcome” or “to live an excessively long life.” John Bradley, of San Jose, Calif., wrote, “Your correspondent might not be pleased to know that the word she seeks already exists. It is cunctate, more familiar in its noun form cunctator. Although lesser dictionaries give it the abbreviated meaning of ‘delayer or procrastinator,’ the Oxford English Dictionary will inform that it was once more commonly used to mean ‘one who delays past the appropriate time for departure.’ One elderly and probably senile Byzantine emperor who would neither abdicate in favor of his highly regarded heir nor just conveniently die was nicknamed Felix Cunctator.” Great word and a good tale—but, John, you know that hardly any of it’s true, right? Cunctator does mean “one who acts tardily, a delayer,” to quote the OED’s definition in its entirety, and classical history did give us a “Cunctator,” but he was a Roman military commander, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who earned the epithet by being slow to deploy troops against Hannibal.

William A. Parks Jr., of Covington, Va., called “living an excessively long life” “a rather repulsively morbid and judgmental concept” but went on to suggest extravive and hypervive as coinages that could convey it. For the “tarry beyond one’s welcome” part of the idea, he invented a different word: tarryover.

In fact, many suggestions that came in failed to cover the whole territory. Bridget Hellstrom, of Arlington Heights, Ill., wrote, “People who have reached a very old age are not just over the hill but over the mountain.” Kathleen DeBold, of Burtonsville, Md., wrote, “The clueless folks left over at a party after the other guests are gone have a special name: remainduhs.”

A coinage that does everything requested came from James Tuten, of Huntingdon, Pa. Tuten wrote, “The late Senator Strom Thurmond arguably outlived his stay in American politics—certainly he defied expectations. In his honor: such a person is a Strombulist.” And the activity is Strom­bulism, and to engage in it is to Strom­bulize. Let’s stick with the political theme this month and award Tuten top honors.

Now Patricia Cockram, of Jackson Heights, N.Y., writes, “I’m looking for a word that describes things (like ATMs or drugstores) that seem ubiquitous when you aren’t looking for them but that are nowhere to be found when you are.”

And James Monack, of Washington, D.C., writes, “I need a word for an attempt, using facial expressions, to make a stranger’s baby smile.”

Send words that meet Patricia Cockram’s or James Monack’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 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, 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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