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.

decessionnoun, a period of recessionary spending coupled with depressed thinking on the part of consumers: “America has entered a phase we’re calling ‘Decession’" (The Popcorn Report).

BACKGROUND: Decession is a blend of depression—the emotional kind—and the economic term recession. According to Faith Popcorn, the head of the marketing consultancy firm Brain Reserve, where the term was coined in 1990, decessionary thinking is fueled not only by current economic uncertainties but also by bitterness and guilt about the credit and spending excesses of the 1980s. Other factors include job dissatisfaction, health and environmental threats, anxiety about crime and violence, and a perception of government and society as rudderless. The result has been a cutback in spending, a return to cash from plastic, and a lack of confidence in the quality of essential goods. Popcorn predicts that the current decession and the angry “vigilante consumer” it has spawned may erode traditional brand loyalties and perhaps bring down some long-established companies.

grassy knollismnoun, the persistent creation of conspiracy theories despite a paucity of evidence: “Harry Hopkins would have been at home in the land of grassy-knollism(Boston Globe).

BACKGROUND: Thousands of references have been made in print in the past 29 years to a certain grassy knoll along the Dallas freeway where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Some 600 books about the assassination have been published, many suggesting the existence of a second sniper on that knoll and promoting theories of cabals involving the intelligence community, organized crime, the military-industrial complex, and the executive branch. Grassy knollism may result from a desire to confer some measure of sense, however unsettling, on the seemingly senseless. The term has obviously been spotlighted by the controversy over Oliver Stone’s film JFK, and seems destined to find a permanent place in the vernacular.

outsider artnoun, a work of contemporary art created by a nontraditional artist using highly unusual media, such as wire, bones, buttons, pebbles, or pieces of concrete: “The French call it art offshore or art brut, and in English it is known as outsider art: works by unschooled visionaries . . . who know nothing of mainstream art” (New York Times).

BACKGROUND: The word outsider in this compound refers both to the artists’ lack of formal training and to their venues—typically isolated locales far from established artistic centers. Outsider artists are often country folk, the elderly, or the very young, or sometimes the mentally ill; many of their creations are said to arise from visions and dreams. Outsider art is increasingly sought by collectors and may command five-figure prices. Its recent popularity has been attributed to a renewed respect for handcrafted items, a growing boredom with more-conventional styles of art, and the skyrocketing prices of works by established artists.

Skycarnoun, a lightweight oneto four-passenger car-sized aircraft meant for commuting: “The skycar ... is designed to take off and land vertically— handy for those tight parking spots” (Toronto Star).

BACKGROUND: The Skycar, which was modeled late last year, is the culmination of some 25 years of work and as many millions of dollars in expenditures by Paul Moller, a former aeronautical-engineering professor at the University of California at Davis. It has eight air-cooled rotary engines, each generating 150 horsepower—enough to boost it to a cruising speed of more than 300 miles per hour. (It can also hover, motionless, in midair.) The vehicle is designed to travel at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet. It comes equipped with two joysticks—one for altitude, another for direction— two video screens for flight control and navigation, parachutes, and folding wingtips for easy garage parking. It gets about 15 miles to a gallon of fuel. To date, 97 orders for the Skycar have been received. Initially it will sell for $995,000, but the price is expected to drop as production volume increases—a discomfiting scenario indeed.

Velcroid or velcroidnoun, slang, a person who makes a point of staying near an important leader in order to gain media visibility and ensure continued access to that leader: “Ever notice the people who chum up to the Prime Minister in pictures? Call them velcroids" (Toronto Star).

BACKGROUND: Last year The New York Times drew up a list of White House Velcroids. Foremost among them was John Sununu, at the time the White House chief of staff, who earned this notice by dint of his behavior at presidential photo opportunities, especially during the Gulf War. Other recent examples of terms derived from trademarks include Teflon President, which refers, of course, to Ronald Reagan’s uncanny ability to emerge from criticism unscathed, and talkzak: “The endless talkzak at the Knesset is a perfect counterpoint to the inescapable muzak [sic] that pollutes our daily lives” (Jerusalem Post).