Contents | July/August 2004
For more by Barbara Wallraff, see The Court Record.
See a collection of Atlantic articles on language.
Submit an entry to Word Fugitives.
From the archives:
"The Physics of Gridlock" (December 2000)
hat causes traffic jams? The depressing answer may be nothing at all. By Stephen Budiansky
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2004
hen you're standing in line, if you observe that other lines are moving faster than yours, what would you call that observation? A term for it was one of the word fugitives sought in March. A number of readers, however, got sidetracked by the question of whether the perception was grounded in reality: is such an observer delusional or bravely facing the truth?
by Barbara Wallraff
Richard Bagby, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, wrote, "If two persons simultaneously enter lines of equal length, the one in the slower line spends more time there. So on average, a significantly greater fraction of the time spent waiting in lines is spent in slow-moving lines than in fast-moving lines." Joe Touch, of Manhattan Beach, California, wrote, "Often thinking the line next to you is moving faster is called statistics. Consider your line, the one to your left, and the one to your right as a set of three. The chance that you will be in the fastest line, all other things being equal, is one in three, or 33 percent." And Nathan Perez, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, invoked Einstein's theory of relativity before explaining, "The line you are in appears slower because when you look ahead, your movement equals that of those in your line. For all intents and purposes, you are not moving at all. A possible term might be express relativism: when you are in the express lane, it is no longer express."
Other readers felt that our subject of inquiry was conceptually akin to Murphy's Law—"If anything can go wrong, it will." Several people pointed out that the principle that the other line always moves faster is sometimes called Etorre's Observation. (None of them, and none of our usual sources, seemed to know who Etorre? Ettorre? Ettore? is or was.) This even has a corollary: If you switch lines, the line you were in will begin moving faster.
Srila Nayak, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, felt—uniquely—there was something poetic about the observation in question. Inspired by Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," Nayak suggested the term Frost's Law and explained: "The poem's lines 'Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler' present the dilemma surrounding mutually exclusive choices. Read in its entirety, the poem brings home the lingering doubts following a choice and persistent thoughts about the choice not made—in this situation about lines at a fast-food outlet."
In general, respondents found the common American word line a less thought-provoking starting point than its primarily British English equivalent, queue. A number suggested misqueue; a few suggested disqueuetude. Alan Horoschak, of Sitka, Alaska, suggested a queue anxiety; Russ Hurd, of Copley, Ohio, persequeuetion complex; Bernard Goldhirsch, of East Hampton, New York, piqueue; Fran M. Grove-White, of Toronto, Ontario, unluqueuey; Jeffrey J. Forster, of Pittsburgh, queueriosity; and Geoffrey Andersen, of Oakland, California, quevetousness.
Top honors, however, go to Glenn Thomsen, of Appleton, Wisconsin, for misalinement, a down-to-earth, distinctly American coinage that doubles as a term for standing in an objectively slower line and as a term for the unverified observation that one seems to be doing so.
The second fugitive sought in March was "a term that describes the momentary confusion experienced by everyone in the vicinity when a cell phone rings and no one is sure if it is his/hers." Paul Holman, of Austin, Texas, suggested conphonesion; Pam Blanco, of Warwick, Rhode Island, phonundrum; Alan Tobey, of Berkeley, California, ringchronicity; Jim Hutt, of Blue Mountain Lake, New York, ringmarole; William A. Browne Jr., of Indianapolis, ringxiety; and Gordon Wilkinson, of Mill Bay, British Columbia, fauxcellarm.
Taking top honors is Michael W. Pajak, of Portland, Maine, for being the first of many readers to suggest the apt coinage pandephonium.
Now Sam Alzheimer, of Augusta, Georgia, writes, "I imagine that nearly everyone who owns a car has had to quickly clear the clutter from the front seat to accommodate an unexpected passenger. My fiancée and I have searched fruitlessly for a word that describes tidying on the go."
And Tim Irvine, of Fremont, California, seeks "a word to describe the feeling one experiences when stepping off a curb without knowing it." He adds, "The feeling only lasts until your foot touches the ground—but what a feeling it is."
Send words that meet Sam Alzheimer's or Tim Irvine's needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114. Submissions must be received by August 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 Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, by Scott Stossel; Faith: Short Fiction on the Varieties and Vagaries of Faith, edited by C. Michael Curtis; and my own Your Own Words.
Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2004; Word Fugitives; Volume 294, No. 1; 190.