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Word Watch -- August 1996

by Anne H. Soukhanov

A selection of terms that have newly been coined, that have recently acquired new currency, or that have taken on new meanings, compiled by the executive editor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition.


Beau Geste fort noun, slang, one of a chain of irregularly star-shaped base camps containing lined wooden-floored tents provided with power and heat, capable of billeting 1,200- 1,800 soldiers and their fighting vehicles, that have been constructed across Sector Tuzla in northeast Bosnia as part of NATO's peace-keeping Operation Joint Endeavor: "The Army has contracted with a civilian construction firm to build its base camps, dubbed `Beau Geste forts' by one wag, referring to the . . . forts of a Gary Cooper movie" (Washington Post).

BACKGROUND: The 1939 movie Beau Geste centers on the experiences of the three Geste brothers (Beau is the eldest), who join the French Foreign Legion. While defending a Legion outpost in the Sahara, two of them come under fierce attack by Arab forces. The use of the film's title to designate these new NATO bases is significant in view of the troops' mission and the film's genre. As one critic has put it, Beau Geste is one of the "imperial epics" of the late 1930s--movies in which "the civilized order is embodied by a military outpost."

para-parenting noun, 1) a close relationship between a single adult and an unrelated child, which can be crucial to creating a normal childhood in a family stressed by economic hardship or divorce: "Child care experts are just now beginning to give proper recognition to . . . unformalized, often serendipitous `para-parenting' . . . that bind[s] children and single adults. These relationships are most often seen in low-income families . . . , but they are becoming more common in middle-income families, too" (New York Times).

2) the assumption by a child of household responsibilities in lieu of a working parent or set of parents: "Kids are alone more and tend to be decision makers when a weary mom phones home to ask what they want for dinner. And the number of single-parent households has shot up from 29 percent to 44 percent, putting the burden of `para-parenting,' or filling in for an absent parent, on the child" (San Francisco Chronicle).

BACKGROUND: Para-parenting in the first sense can involve babysitting, reading to the child, or taking care of doctors' appointments. It can also entail providing luxuries that the biological parent cannot afford, such as dancing or ice-skating lessons or even private-school tuition. Collateral terms include psychological parent, nonfamilial parent, and surrogate parent (all referring to the mentor); recruiter kid (a child who, often quite deliberately, semi-adopts a nonfamilial adult mentor); and informal adoption (the relationship itself). The second sense of para-parenting is associated with another new word: filiarchy, "the rule of the child."

sero-discordant adj., of, relating to, or being a relationship involving one HIV-positive and one HIV-negative partner: "Without understating the specter of death, sero-discordant couples are more likely to dwell on long-term survival" (New York Times).

BACKGROUND: Despite the presence of the word discordant in this compound, the term actually denotes accord and cohesion. According to a spokesman at Body Positive of New York, a service organization for people infected with HIV, a growing number of sero-discordant couples are remaining together, and hoping, of course, for a means of stabilizing the HIV-positive condition or for a cure.

work plane noun, a desk on wheels, for use in offices where employees commonly work in flexible teams: "In catering to teamwork management, the companies that constitute the $9 billion-a-year North American office-furniture industry are creating equipment with a whole new nomenclature. . . . [A] desk is no longer a desk: it's a `work plane'" (Wall Street Journal).

BACKGROUND: A variety of easily portable furniture has been designed to meet the demands of a changing work environment, one that is increasingly populated by mobiles (on- and chiefly off-site workers) and teamers. Such furniture fits into both commons (shared work spaces) and caves (private offices). Among the items intended for teaming spaces are wheeled work nests (work areas consisting of a mixture of rolling components), stowaways or puppies (rolling storage cabinets that can follow their users from one work station to another), perimeters (screens that can be attached to walls or to temporary partitions, or used standing alone), fences (systems for managing electrical and phone wires, which are also useful in defining the boundaries of work areas), and scaffolds (ladderlike perimeters that are really partitions customized for a given worker's office equipment).


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 1996; Word Watch; Volume 278, No. 2; page 96.

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