Word Fugitives

By Barbara Wallraff
Do you have a word fugitive you'd like The Atlantic's help finding?

Send an e-mail to Barbara Wallraff at msgrammar@theatlantic.com. Letters become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited.

What's "a word to describe the feeling one experiences when stepping off a curb without knowing it"? This fugitive, sought in the July/August issue, sent readers' minds careening in all directions. Discurbed was a very common response. Variants on vertigo were popular too—for instance, curbigo and inadvertigo (each submitted by several people); vertigone (from Tom Thomsen, of Magnolia, Texas); voidigo (David Nurse, of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories); and whereditgo (Rosie Bensen, of Newcastle, Maine). Other ideas included curbulence and stepefaction (each submitted by more than one person); the slippery slope fallacy (Steve Poole, of Seattle); sole searching (John Sette, of St. Augustine, Florida); and stepping short (Tom Diehl, of Alexandria, New Hampshire). Karl Hanf, of Billerica, Massachusetts, wrote, "It's called falling. No fancy, made-up words are necessary." There's one in every crowd.

David Chastain, of Boston, wrote: "This is a feeling familiar to anyone who has worked on staging planks, set up high on scaffolding. Over long spans the planks are overlapped at the ends, so that you're never supported by a single cantilevered plank. You step down a small amount as you cross the overlap. If you're carrying a bundle of shingles or something that obscures your view of your path and you're not expecting this little drop, you're suddenly aware that you're high above ground and have lost your footing. It's called a half-inch heart attack. Decades of your life can pass before your eyes in this interval." Nick Winowich, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, wrote, "Bricklayers already have a phrase for it," and launched into a similar explanation. But according to Winowich, the phenomenon is called a two-inch death plunge.

Rebecca Lasky, of San Francisco, was unable to curb her enthusiasm. She wrote, "I do not feel it ungrounded to say that life throws everyone that curb fall at one time or another, though few are dealighted (and many strongly disinclined) to find themselves rudely kerbplopped into the ranks of the downtrodden. As for the best word to describe the feeling when one has been so erroaded, could it be discurbobulated?"

Top honors go to Julie Ruckstuhl, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who wrote, "Two expressions come immediately to mind: groundless fear and animated suspension."

In the same issue a reader asked for help in finding a word for quickly clearing the clutter from the front seat of a car to accommodate an unexpected passenger. A number of people suggested gearshifting. To explain why this word is apt, one person who proposed it, Steven Safran, of Natick, Massachusetts, wrote, "You're not actually cleaning, merely moving the junk around."

C. Bernard Barfoot, of Alexandria, Virginia, wrote, "When I was in the U.S. Navy, the crew routinely worked to keep our ship neat and clean when we were under way at sea. Every day the order would go out to 'titivate the ship,' which meant to 'spruce it up or make it neat and orderly.' So there would seem to be ample precedent for adopting titivation as the word to describe tidying on the go. The word titivate apparently was derived from tidy with a quasi-Latin suffix added." The Oxford English Dictionary labels that etymology "perh." (that is, perhaps), but its etymologists have no competing explanations to offer.

William Kittredge, of Ocean City, New Jersey, suggested aclean swoop; Tina Thompson, of Paducah, Kentucky, fling cleaning; Clela Reed, of Athens, Georgia, hasty putting; Margaret Chen, of Irvine, California, hurri-clean; and Robert Pearson, of Woodland Park, Colorado, trashportation. And Steve Meuse, of Londonderry, New Hampshire, wanted us to know that he thinks those particularly skilled at the activity under discussion should be called litterati.

And what, indeed, should we call that activity? Top honors go to Jeremy Weiss, of Morris Plains, New Jersey, for his coinage asweep at the wheel.

Now Nick Fedoroff, of Wilmington, North Carolina, asks, "What's the word for that restless feeling that causes me to repeatedly peer into the refrigerator when I'm bored? There's nothing to do in there."

And Carson Stanwood, of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, writes, "My wife and I have been searching for a term that describes the manner in which two people who dislike each other manage to avoid acknowledgment, even in close proximity, when their paths cross in public."

Send words that meet Nick Fedoroff's or Carson Stanwood's needs via the Word Fugitives page on our Web site, at www.theatlantic.com/fugitives. Submissions must be received by December 31. Use the same form 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, a selection of autographed recent books by Atlantic authors. The next installment's correspondents will be sent Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley; The Outlaw Sea, by William Langewiesche; and Road Work, by Mark Bowden.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/12/word-fugitives/303607/