In a Word

Mind control-alt-delete; liminal laundry
Peter Arkle

If a fight broke out be­­tween the “Get a life!” brigade and the “Gotcha!” gang, who do you suppose would win? I know both groups well—so I try to keep them apart.

Both are looking for trouble. The “Get a life” people spend their free time trawling the Internet, searching for material they’re not interested in so that they can leave comments like “There is really nothing like arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” (That one showed up on my blog.)

The “Gotcha” folks, meanwhile, are on the prowl for anyone who talks funny. For instance, a few days after the election, while everybody else was still jubilant or depressed, a reader e-mailed me to say that she had only one criticism of President-elect Obama—that he sometimes misused personal pronouns, as in “President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I to meet with him…” Even as I thought, What’s the matter with you? Compared with Bush, Barack Obama is Winston Churchill, William Jennings Bryan, and Cicero rolled into one, I wanted to protect my correspondent from people who would actually come out and say that. After all, she had a valid point. I let fresh e-mail pile up on top of hers until it sank into the deep.

Knowing how to respond to certain other “Gotcha” readers is still harder. They see a newspaper headline like “Three Troops Killed in Afghanistan” and sit down to write me about the unfortunate use of the word troops. I know, I know—a troop is preferably a group. But that can’t really be anyone’s whole reaction to such a news story. Step back.

The “Get a lifes” need to step back too. Everything we think about is less important than something else we could be thinking about. In the wrong context, any subject can seem petty. Connoisseurship is a good thing nevertheless. It’s a hallmark of civilization. We have time and energy to take an interest in niceties because we’re not ordinarily occupied with momentous things like death or even the transfer of executive power.

God bless fine points, then. Let’s just try to keep them compartmentalized in a safe place where they belong.


Recently, we sought a word that would mean a kind of confusion that results from spending a lot of time at the computer—such that, for instance, a person who just knocked a jar off the counter might mentally reach for the Undo keyboard command.

Compusion struck a number of readers as the obviously right coinage. Cen Zhang, of New York City, suggested keyfuddled; Katherine Brown, of Cincinnati, keystroke of misfortune; Rick Hickman, of Venice, Calif., key-jerk reaction; and Matthew Bersagel Braley, of Tucker, Ga., typogrammatical error.

Dennis O’Toole wrote, in a blog comment, “Since this covers humans employing computer qualities in inappropriate situations, we should name it in tribute to the computer that developed human qualities in an inappropriate situation. The term is HALaprops.”

All good ideas, but taking top honors is Carl Kay, of Tokyo, who wrote, “Unfortunately, my diagnosis in this case is inputtence.”

Now Carolyn Haggis, of Oxford, England, writes, “I’m looking for a word for the items of clothing which sit perched on a chair in my bedroom, waiting to be reworn. They are not yet ready for the laundry bin (since I plan to rewear them), but they are no longer suitable for the wardrobe (which I reserve for clean clothes). I assume others keep their lightly worn clothes in a similar purgatory?”

Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet Carolyn Haggis’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.

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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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