Word Fugitives


Illustration by Greg Clarke

In March, a woman requested a term for her husband’s “uncanny ability to ask if I need help with a household task at the exact moment that I am finishing it.” Apparently, husbands the world over have this knack. For instance, Kunio Shimane, of Yokoshiba Hikari, Japan, wrote, “Tonight as I was, as usual, reading before supper, I looked up and asked my wife if I could do anything. She said that’s exactly what The Atlantic wants a word for. I suggest hind offer.”

A sizable majority of the respondents were men, many of whom cheerfully admitted that the wanted word would apply to them. Stephen Weiland, of Chicago, wrote, “As a chore-avoiding husband, I feel a creative word is unnecessary—I simply describe the situation as perfect timing.” Robert King, of Indianapolis, wrote, “For this phenomenon, of which I have been guilty, I offer plausible reliability.” Rob Moore, of Longwood, Fla., wrote, “We husbands consider that an example of excellent choreography.”

And top honors go to another correspondent from abroad—Laurenz Albe, of Vienna, Austria—for his says-it-all portmanteau word afterthoughtful.

“The unfortunate telling of a story that one realizes too late is ill-suited to the occasion” was the other March fugitive. A reader submitted it on behalf of Dick Cavett, who had wondered in a New York Times blog post whether there might be a “precise and economical” expression for this. Therefore, we asked Cavett to award top honors, and he kindly agreed. We gave him these six finalists to choose from:

Iain Mackie, of Vancouver, British Columbia, who wrote, “While my word does not describe the faux pas itself, on telling such a tale I can only describe myself, after the fact, as feeling blabber­ghasted.”

Ari Finkelstein, of Astoria, N.Y., who wrote, “Such a story might be referred to as a lizard tale, since it gets away from you right as you think you’ve got a hold on it.”

William R. Phillips, of Seattle, who wrote, “We have all told such an embarrassing story and wished we had reined ourselves in earlier and shut the barn door in time. It is called a tale of whoa.”

Richard Lanning, of Philadelphia, who wrote, “The situation is one with which I am quite familiar. I am left with the feeling of hair on my tongue, as if I had put my faux paw in my mouth.”

Tracy J. Priest Jr., of Savannah, Ga., who wrote, “The ill-suited story belongs to the broader category of the fool pas. My friend Howard Bowden says the story should be labeled miscourse. Should we call the hapless storyteller an anecdope?”

And Chris Rooney, of Berkeley, Calif., who wrote, “As long as inappropriate stories have been told, there have been recanterbury tales.”

Here’s Cavett’s response: “For me, Richard Lanning comes closest to describing the feeling of being betrayed by one’s own mouth in a manner brought on by oneself. I can even identify with the feeling he describes of having a hirsute tongue. Although I’m many years from my Intensive German 101 course (nine times a week!), this seems like one of those things German would have a long word for. Would a German reader accept Fuss­im­mund­ein­zu­fügen? Ja oder nein?”

Word Fugitives can’t answer that—but Glückwunsch in any case to Richard Lanning.

Now Eileen Flug, of Westport, Conn., writes, “I’m looking for a word for the seemingly universal, irresistible impulse, when faced with a dishwasher that someone else has loaded, to rearrange the dishes.”

And Curtis L. Brown, of Neenah, Wis., writes, “Please help me find an appropriate word for the aversion of many persons (young or old) to revealing their true age.”

Send words that meet Eileen Flug’s or Curtis Brown’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 August 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. More Words That Make a Difference, by Robert and Carol Greenman, and my own Word Fugitives.

Readers whose queries are published and those whose words are singled out for top honors will each receive, with our thanks,

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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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