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.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

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


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In