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 may eventually make its way into the dictionary. The information below: represents the first stage of research, not the final product.

black mayonnaisenoun, toxic sludge found on the bottoms of harbors, bays, and oceans, formed of undecayed sediment, sewage, and petrochemical waste, often extending for miles: “Dredging Baltimore Harbor to depths of 115 ft. has spurred measures to avoid stirring up harmful sediments. There’s a ‘whole list of chemicals on the bottom,’ says . . . project manager Kenneth D. Merrill. The top 10 ft. of harbor material, ‘black mayonnaise, ‘ will take the longest time to consolidate; the rest is better, sandy soil, he says" (Engineering News-Record). BACKGROUND: We have citations for black mayonnaise going back as far as 1978, the most recent one having appeared in the August 1, 1988, issue of Newsweek: “What is happening underwater ... is not for the squeamish. Scuba divers talk of swimming through clouds of toilet paper and half-dissolved feces, of bay bottoms covered by a . . . sediment . . . appropriately known as ’black mayonnaise.'”

boomerang babynoun, a gainfully employed young person, typically a college graduate, who chooses to return to and live for an indefinite time with his or her parents; also called boomeranger. “The real social commentators of our times, namely cartoonists like Gary Trudeau and comics like Bill Cosby, are already using these young adults as fodder for their humor. And, of course, as they did with ‘yuppies,’ the ‘me generation’ and ‘dinks,’the experts have already given the phenomenon a name—boomerang babies” (Hatfield, Mass., Valley Advocate).

BACKGROUND: According to the March, 1987, Current Population Reports, more young adults are living in their parents’ homes than at any other time since the Second World War: 52 percent of men and 33 percent of women aged 20 to 24 live at home or are provided with food and shelter by their parents. In their book Boomerang Kids (1987) Jean Davies Okimoto and Phyllis Jackson Stegall observe that the cost of living has escalated by 267 percent since 1970, the purchasing power of the dollar has plummeted by almost 300 percent over the same period, entrylevel salaries have failed to keep pace with housing costs, and thus boomerang babies, many of whom are trying to pay off college loans, are strapped for cash. Allan Schnaiberg, a sociologist at Northwestern University, believes that parents who have tried to do too much for their children have contributed to boomeranging too. Kids who have never learned how to confront and solve problems often react to them by retreating— in this case, creating for the parents what is called the crowded-nest syndrome.

neomortnoun, a brain-dead patient kept alive for an indefinite period by life-support systems while his or her organs await transplantation; also called biomort, respirated cadaver, “Neomort and neomortia. . . . relate to the state of braindeath, more specifically the proposal . . . that the ‘usable organs of newly dead people be kept in their owners’ bodies’ as a form of storage. . . . the . . . neomorts would be kept on life support systems in a state of neomortia until the parts were needed" (New York Times). BACKGROUND: The Second Barnhart Dictionary of New English says that the American psychiatrist Willard Gaylin coined neomort in 1974, as attested by this citation from his article “Harvesting the Dead,” which appeared in Harper’s that year: “Uneasy medical students could practice routine physical examinations . . . everything except neurological examinations, since the neomort by definition has no functioning central nervous system.” In his book We Have a Donor, Mark Dowie explains that biomort. which is said to have first appeared in print in a 1979 legal opinion published in the Utah Law Review, was coined to denote “a third form of being (sort of living, sort of dead).” Neither biomort nor neomort has gained widespread currency; in fact, Dowie observes that primary-care physicians consider them too offensive to be used in public.

quuxinterjection, slang, used as an expression of mild disgust: “Quux ... is uttered mostly for the sake of it" (unpublished list of MIT, Stanford, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute computer jargon compiled by Guy L. Steele, Jr., et al.).

BACKGROUND: Quux— like bagbiter (faulty hardware or software), glork (an interjection expressing mild surprise), and hungus (large, unwieldy)—is an example of the lexically fecund private language of computer scientists, Quux will probably never gain wide currency, but it is of interest nonetheless as an English term containing two contiguous u’s. In the fall, 1985, issue of American Speech, Timothy Perper wrote: “There are, it was said, five words in English that have two u’s in them. What are they? Over the years I have tried to discover what these five words might be.”Perper came up with seven: vacuum, residuum, continuum, menstruum, individuum, duumvirate (“two people associated in high office or position”), and lituus (meaning variously a crooked staff’ carried by an augur, a curved trumpet, and a spiral). To this list of words, all of which are of Latin origin, at least two others can be added: equus (also of Latin origin) and muumuu (borrowed from the Hawaiian mu’u mu’u).