Word Watch

Here are a few of the words being tracked by the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin. A new word that exhibits sustained use over time may eventually make its way into the dictionary.

agrimationnoun, automated farming, especially the use of supersmart robots to perform heretofore manual operations that require acute vision, dexterity, and the ability to make choices: “Tireless and versatile, these mechanical migrants will do everything from harvesting artichokes to milking cows. The researchers have coined a new word for the move to automated farming: agrimation(Business Week). BACKGROUND: The quotation from Business Week is our first example of the word agrimation in a nontechnical publication. The word is of particular interest as a representative of a new high-tech lexical subculture— one specific to robotics. Two other members of this subculture are video eyes (the electronic eyes that enable a robot to perform delicate tasks, such as picking peaches, in varying degrees of light and shade) and cowbot (a robot capable of feeding a dairy herd, attaching and detaching milking equipment, and cleaning the equipment).

chicken runnoun, emigration of large numbers of people from a country or an area that is undergoing violent political, especially racial, upheaval: “In spite of the attempts of the South African government to minimize what has become known as the chicken run, the exodus of English-speaking South Africans is clearly accelerating” (Maclean’s). BACKGROUND: In one of the small ironies of history, chicken run once referred to the flight of white refugees into South Africa from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Our earliest citation for the term is dated April 27, 1978: “A growing number of white farmers are said to be abandoning their homesteads and taking the chicken run to South Africa” (Washington Post). The term is a compound probably formed from the adjective chicken, meaning “cowardly,” and the noun run, meaning “a route or course traveled.”

coyotenoun, a roving firefighter who is dispatched, often for days at a time, to remote, usually very serious, forest fires: “Like the scraggly creature that lives a bare subsistence in the wild, coyote crews are left in the fire zone to sleep when they can and continue to fight the fire” (Boston Globe).

verb, to dispatch (firefighters) to battle remote blazes: “‘You can’t coyote people too many shifts,’ said Leland Singer, a fire information officer” (Boston Globe). BACKGROUND: This newmeaning of the noun coyote and the new verb form have appeared in our general sources in the past year. The first citation illustrates the extension in meaning of the noun from the zoological to the human. The development of the verb from the noun is an example of the linguistic process called functional shift, The verb coyote joins a menagerie of other such verbs formed from pre-existing nouns, of Which these are but a few examples:buffalo, bug, bull, cat, dog, fish, fox, goose, horse, rat, snake, squirrel, and wolf.

grazeverb, 1. to eat various appetizers (e.g., guacamole, goat cheese marinated with herbs and oil, sushi and sashimi, crudités, and Korean short ribs of beef) as a full meal: “These days, a whole meal often consists of a series of little dishes brought to the table, one or two at a time, for everyone to share. Called grazing, or ‘modular eating,’ this new trend is a far cry from having one’s own slab of meat, some vegetables and a fork and a knife in each fist to fend off stray intruders” ( The New York Times Magazine). 2. to allow a child to open packages in a supermarket for food samples and then return the packages to the shelf: “I first read about grazing in a magazine article lamenting the decline in public morality. Grazing ... is what supermarket managers call the behavior of certain mothers with small children who frequent their stores. As the mother herds the children along, she stops long enough to open a box of cereal or crackers, and sneak the kids a quick ‘wad.’ Then she replaces the box on the shelf before moving on” (US Air). BACKGROUND: The verb graze ordinarily brings to mind hay, silage, rumination, cuds, and perhaps compartmented stomachs, but not trendy restaurants, the decline of parental morality, or even grubby little hands. Nevertheless, the word is developing two new senses— the first one having rapidly gained widespread currency, and the second still restricted primarily to the jargon of the grocery business.

urgicenter,noun, a for-profit medical clinic, typically in a business district or shopping mall, that offers treatment without appointments or referrals for relatively minor medical complaints such as flu or sprains, but that does not provide the ongoing, comprehensive, specialized care for severely ill patients that hospitals do: “The chains are buying into another phenomenon: the urgicenters . . . that have sprung up in business districts and shopping centers. There are 2,500 such mini-clinics . . . today, 1,400 more than there were a year ago” (The Washington Post). BACKGROUND: The word urgicenter is formed by joining the element urg- (as in urgent) and the noun center with the connective -i-. Urgicenter, for which we have printed citations dating back to a 1984 reference in U.S. News & World Report, is synonymous with a slightly older term, doc-in-a-box, for which we have printed evidence going back to a 1983 article in Fortune. Other synonyms include immediate-care facility, surgicenter, and the irreverent McDoctor.