Word Fugitives

Illustration by Greg Clarke

What would be a good word for 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”? Such was one of the fugitives requested in the May Atlantic. Brendan Moore, of Durham, N.C., wrote, “My wife and I refer to this phenomenon as every nowhere. Other things that fall into this category include gas stations, restaurants open after 10 p.m., and police cars when you see a dangerous driver.”

Neverywhere was probably the most popular suggestion. Runners-up include unbiquitous, ubiquitless, and fewbiquitous. Helen Reich, of West Melbourne, Australia, suggested ubi-quit-on-ous; and Sheila Tombe, of Lady’s Island, S.C., ubiquitisn’t. Brett Price, of Austin, Texas, proposed omnipresen’t; Patricia Peters, of East Norriton, Pa., omniabsent; and Glen Henderson, of Toronto, omnevanescent.

Among the quirkier suggestions received were vanishing points, from Terry Munson, of Pawleys Island, S.C.; ameniteases, from Chandler Fulton, of New York City; fair-weather vends, from Dan Tanner, of Bloomington, Minn.; serenmissity, from Marc Bloch, of Seattle; hydensequitous, from Bill Andrews, of Bon Air, Va.; and perversive, from Bob Lewis, of Richland, Wash. Mike Nugent, of Denver, sent in a word that was not only distinctive but also specific and relatively clear: elusiversal. Nugent takes top honors.

The other May fugitive was “a word for an attempt, using facial expressions, to make a stranger’s baby smile.” A number of readers focused on the sound effects that would go along with the smile. Carl Kay, of Tokyo, wrote, “When a long-sullen baby suddenly expresses contentment in response to the exaggerated gestures of an adult, it is called a coo de théâtre.” Shane Feldhaus, of Minne­tonka, Minn., proposed coo-ercion; Marge Kennedy, of New York City, coogling; and Jessica Chen, of Oyster Bay, N.Y., seek-a-coo.

Ted Wendt, of Modesto, Calif., wrote, “What you’re doing is, obviously, making a babyface.” Andrew Madigan, of Brooklyn, N.Y., suggested the phrase pramming it up. John Tobin, of Hampton, N.H., wrote, “Trying to make a baby laugh solely by the use of facial expressions might be called pramtomime.” Jamie Bronstein, of Las Cruces, N.M., suggested pedagoggling; Chris Rooney, of Berkeley, Calif., pediantics; Charles P. Seltman, of Divide, Colo., infantics; and Susan Teltser-Schwarz, of Scarsdale, N.Y., infantomime. Worthy ideas all, but Amanda Coutts, of Providence, R.I., takes top honors for sycoinfancy.

Now Michael McWatters, of New York City, writes, “I use a computer for the better part of my waking life, and I’ve noticed that certain repetitive keyboard tasks are making their way into my noncomputer life. For example, I recently knocked a jar off the counter, and a little voice inside yelped, Command-Z! (the keyboard shortcut for Undo). Ditto for the time I accidentally ripped a page in a book. A friend mentioned that she recently lost her keys and thought, Command-F (Find). There should be a term for this confusion, as it’s only going to become more common.”

Note to readers:

The November issue will introduce a revamped Word page, with one new fugitive in every issue, instead of the usual two in every other issue. We’ll also be adding a blog by Barbara Wallraff on the​atlantic.com, including a place where you can post your ideas for the words that fugitive-hunters are seeking.

Send words that meet Michael McWatters’s need 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 October 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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