In a Word December 2008

Word Fugitives

Articles of agreement; dishwasher dictators
Peter Arkle

"I agree.” It’s a simple statement, but what elicits it is often quite the opposite. If you spend any time online, you know the drill: when you first visit certain Web sites or when a software update is ready, a pop-up full of fine print appears, requiring you to scroll to the bottom and click on “I agree” to proceed.

That fine print tends to be lengthy and one-sided: “Under no circum­stances, including, but not limited to, negligence, shall we be liable for any special or consequential damages.” That’s common boilerplate. The wording can also be weirdly specific: “Not intended for use in the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communication systems, air traffic control systems …” That’s from a recent iTunes update.

From the standpoint of psychology, these elaborate warnings and prohibitions are misguided. For instance, doesn’t telling me I “may not modify, copy, reproduce, republish, upload, post, transmit, translate, sell, create derivative works, exploit, or distribute in any manner or medium (including by e-mail or other electronic means) any material” from a Web site beg me to cut and paste and then defiantly assert that I was quoting, rather than any of the above? I imagine that any nuclear engineers reading this are already trying to figure out how they can use iTunes in their work.

The wording of user agreements isn’t even desirable from a legal standpoint. Today’s fine legal minds tend to favor plain English. The lawyer and author Bryan A. Garner writes, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, “Unnecessarily complex legal jargon—or ‘legalese’—is widely viewed by legal scholars as the source of many problems.” He goes on to say, “It doesn’t communicate efficiently, even to other lawyers.” Hear, hear!

Online user agreements tend to be legally enforceable to the extent that they’re “commercially reasonable,” Herbert Hammond, a Dallas intellectual-property lawyer, recently explained to me. That means what it sounds like—for instance, not insisting, as PayPal did until a few years ago, that users can’t sue you but must submit disputes to arbitration in Santa Clara County, California. By the same token, judges expect Internet users to be reasonable too.

So if both providers and users of online services are required to be reasonable, why do we need all the irritating blabbity-blab in user agreements? Boiled down to plain English, what the agreements say is scarcely more than “Let’s be reasonable.” To which I, for one, would gladly respond, “I agree.”

Word Fugitives

A reader recently requested a term for the “irresistible impulse” to re­arrange the dishes in a dishwasher that someone else has loaded. According to zillions of readers, that’s obsessive compulsive dishorder. Another zillion, give or take, pegged it as redishtribution—or dishorderly conduct, redishtricting, dishrespect, or dish jockeying.

Various individualists were, um, dishinclined to pursue that line of thought. These include Ben Smythe, of Idyllwild, Calif., and Claire Stratford, of Tupper Lake, N.Y., both of whom suggested mearranging; and George Yezukevich, of South Weymouth, Mass., and Henry Beer, of Boulder, Colo., who both came up with onecupsmanship.

Marlaine Lockheed, of Prince­ton, N.J., sent in an exclamation instead of a noun as requested. But still. Lockheed earns top honors for Hi-ho, Silverware! It’s the Load Arranger!

Now Michael Muslin, of Chicago, writes, “After my girlfriend observed that train commuters with wheeled briefcases navigate their rolling offices without regard for anyone else, I realized I needed a word to describe an object that indicates the user to be a jerk. Cell phonesare no longer this type of object, due to their ubiquity—but they used to be.”

Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at, where you’ll find more commentary on language and a place to submit word fugitives and words that meet Michael Muslin’s need. Submissions become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives.

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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff, 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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