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The Atlantic Monthly | October 2002
n June we asked for a word to describe "the frantic period of time many families experience each morning prior to leaving home." Replies streamed in from as far away as Santiago, Chile, and Chennai, India. The neologism submitted by more readers than any other was pandemornium, though pandemorningum was also popular. A number of A.M.-related creations turned up as well, such as A.M. mayhem, submitted by many; A.M.ania, from Liz Theran, of Boston; and the subtle mA.M., from Sarah Routh, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Susan Montag, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, managed to combine the pandemonium and A.M. ideas, creating panda.m.onium.
by Barbara Wallraff
Breakfast-related coinages proved to be another fruitful line of thought. Wreckfast, fast break, and scrambled legs were each submitted by more than one person. Toast-haste came from John Kirwan-Taylor, of New Orleans; Special Chaos from Pete McPherson, of Pegram, Tennessee; and javavoom from Bear Braumoeller, of Roslindale, Massachusetts.
Arriving in the same batch of mail as one or two of the suggestions above was a review copy of the forthcoming book Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, by Allan Metcalf. The book, though it is thoughtful and lively, brought unwelcome news. In Metcalf's view, the kinds of coinages Word Fugitives tends to request and to publish show virtually no potential to become permanent additions to our vocabulary. As the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, Metcalf has overseen Words of the Year votes at the ADS's annual conventions during the past twelve years, and he has long pondered why some new words catch on and others don't. Among his conclusions is that "a word that fills a gap in the vocabulary seems to have no particular advantage over one that doesn't"—darn. And "a word has a better chance for success if it is modest and inconspicuous than if it is showy and clever"—double darn.
Now, of course Metcalf is right that an invention as showy as Around They Whirled, Inanely Dazed is unlikely to become the standard term for the frantic morning period—and never mind that the family of J. D. Asis, of Brookline, Massachusetts, delighted in calling it that, "all being fans of Jules Verne," as Asis wrote. Might brood awakening, though, be modest and inconspicuous enough to have staying power? Probably not—but oh, well. It earns top honors for its creator, Nancy Pickard, of Prairie Village, Kansas.
The other June fugitive request was "a verb to describe the raising of the eyebrows and turning down of the mouth to signify that one is impressed." Various readers pointed out that the gesture in question is a lot like a moue—which is sometimes defined as "a grimace," sometimes as "a pout." Karen B. Low, of Great Falls, Montana, wrote, "I suggest woue, a combination of the French moue and the very American word whoo!"
Andrew Friede, of Atlanta, suggested smwow: "Try to say it without raising your eyebrows and turning down your mouth. I can't. Just as frown and smile, when said, contort the face appropriately, so does smwow!" Several people proposed wow-brow; Janet Testerman, of Naples, Florida, praised awebrow; and David Kyler, of Saint Simons Island, Georgia, wincing in paean.
Taking top honors here is Al Skinner, of Mercer Island, Washington, who wrote, "Raising the eyebrows and turning down the corners of the mouth—who does it better than Bill Cosby? Make it a verb: to Cosby."
Now Catherine Mehno, of Weehawken, New Jersey, writes, "I'd like a word for that feeling that you always arrive after the heyday, the boom, or the free ride. For example, when I started college, the drinking age was raised; when I graduated from law school, the job market disappeared. Now I am trying to buy a house, and prices are soaring. This is more than disappointment. It's about missing a departure when you've never been advised of the schedule."
And Jean P. Bell, of Ontario, New York, writes, "Is there a word to describe someone who can read but can't pronounce words? One such person I know, who learned English from books, says things like 'Follow the gweed at the cathedral.'"
Send words that meet Catherine Mehno's or Jean P. Bell's needs 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 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, a selection of recent autographed books by Atlantic authors. The next installment's correspondents will be sent The Character of Cats, by Stephen Budiansky; Afterglow, by Francis Davis; and Snobbery: The American Version, by Joseph Epstein.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Word Court & Word Fugitives conference of Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2002; Word Fugitives; Volume 290, No. 3; 180.