Contents | July/August 2001

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For more by Barbara Wallraff, see The Court Record.

See a collection of Atlantic articles on language.

Submit an entry to Word Fugitives.


The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2001
 
Word Fugitives

by Barbara Wallraff
 

ar be it from the readers of this magazine to unquestioningly do as they're told. Asked in the April Atlantic to invent a replacement for the ever more anachronistic verb dial in relation to the telephone, readers mostly had other ideas. A number of them pointed out that words such as enter, press, punch in, and touch are already widely used as synonyms for dial, and they often added comments like "Dial has probably already become meaningless, but we don't need a neologism," as Patricia Bereck Weikersheimer, of Downers Grove, Illinois, put it.

Some people preferred to defend dial, even if the word is no longer strictly accurate. Bill Myer, of Kinnelon, New Jersey, drew an analogy: "We still call playing cards and credit cards cards even though they're made of plastic, but card comes from a root meaning 'leaf' or 'papyrus.'" Jack Miles, of Pasadena, California, wrote, "I frankly hope that dial will survive. Why deprive future generations of the fun of reading its etymology?" Lisa Stefano, of East Boston, Massachusetts, wrote to boast that she actually has a rotary phone, which her husband rescued from a Dumpster. She continued, "One day I was using the phone (dialing!) and one of my daughter's little friends, four years old, poked her head into the room in alarm, demanding an explanation of the noise I was making.Truthfully, I usually walk around the house with my cordless headset phone.When I use my headset phone, I am not dialing numbers but calling them."

Others invoked words from foreign languages or submitted English words used in one part of the world or of our country. "German helps us out with wählen, translated as select or choose," Fred Rosenberg, of Westlake Village, California, wrote. Compose, cognate with the word used in French, was suggested by several people, among them Oleh Havrylyshyn, of Rockville, Maryland, who wrote, "This usage would delight the Académie française, since more borrowings have gone in the other direction." Several readers pointed out that people in Britain say ring. And four separately wrote about a southern regionalism. Obviously, this isn't a word they coined; in fact, it appears in the Dictionary of American Regional English. All the same, it earns top honors for one of the people who sent it in—Ed Ringness, of Seattle, Washington, whose letter arrived first. Once, on a business trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, Ringness was having trouble with his rental car, he wrote, "and a friendly taxi driver stopped to let me use his cellular phone." The driver, explaining how to make a call, "used the word mash in place of dial or press—as in mash your number, then mash 'send.'"

lso sought in the April issue was a word for "having tongue-in-cheek wit taken literally." Steve Adams, of Westford, Massachusetts, wrote, "As an Englishman with over a decade of anthropological research experience in this topic gained by living in the United States, I have confrmed with fellow expats that the word best describing a person exhibiting the literalist trait is American." Jennifer Davis and Andy Kopra, of Los Angeles, suggested witeralist; Robert Powers, of Abingdon, Maryland, humoron; and Christopher McLemore, of Manhattan, Kansas, dumb aleck. But a name for a person who takes humor literally isn't quite what was wanted. Tom Linde, of Seattle, Washington, takes top honors for concretinism.

NOW EVELIN SULLIVAN, of Redwood City, California, writes, "How about a word for an object that works only if one employs a trick known to its owner or frequent user, like jiggling it, putting pressure on it, warming it, or blowing on it?"

AND MANISH PATWARI, of Montreal, Quebec, writes, "There are more than a hundred phobias listed in specialized dictionaries, and quite a few of these appear in the unabridged versions of major lexicons like Webster's or Oxford. But is there a word for the fear of inadvertently throwing something valuable out with the garbage? Two years ago I found my ring with precious stones in the garbage just before I was about to put it out on the driveway. Since then I always check the garbage bags twice before putting out the trash. I am sure at least a few other people have this fear."

Send words that meet Evelin Sullivan's or Manish Patwari's purposes to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or visit the Word Fugitives page on our Web site, at www.theatlantic.com/fugitives. Submissions must be received by August 30. 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, a selection of recent autographed books by
Atlantic authors. The next installment's correspondents will be sent Free Flight, by James Fallows; Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser; and my own Word Court.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.


Illustration by Marc Rosenthal.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2001; Word Fugitives; Volume 288, No. 1; 176.