Word Watch

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.

bloatware computer programs that use inordinate amounts of disk space and memory: "Many of the most popular programs ... today are immense, top-heavy bloatware that do what they're supposed to do very well, but at cost of enormous resource requirements" (The [Montreal] Gazette).

BACKGROUND: This word goes back at least to 1991, when it referred in particular to software packages to which hundreds of features -- many rarely used -- had been added so that the packages could be marketed as "new" or "improved." Also dubbed obese applications or El Bloato, has led to countless computer upgrades and crashes.

economy class syndrome thromboembolic episodes, sparked by the sudden forming of blood clots in the legs, among passengers who have remained immobile for long periods in cramped seating that impairs their circulation: "The phenomenon [is called] the 'economy class syndrome,' as people with little leg space in a jet plane's less expensive seats are more likely to suffer such 'events' than passengers in roomy first-class seats" (Jerusalem Post).

BACKGROUND: This malady can also affect passengers on long train, bus, and car trips. Abbreviated ECS, it was first described by Bryan Jennett, a Glasgow University professor emeritus of neurosurgery who, after a lengthy flight, suffered chest pains caused by a pulmonary embolus that had migrated from his leg to his lung. Preventive measures include moving about the cabin, doing in-seat exercises, drinking large quantities of nonalcoholic beverages, wearing loose clothing, and removing one's shoes.

killer litter items thrown from the windows of tall buildings which can cause personal injury or property damage: "Welcome to Singapore, where the main danger facing a pedestrian isn't pickpockets or potholes but 'killer litter' -- junk tossed out of windows by residents of high-rise apartments" (Wall Street Journal).

BACKGROUND: Killer litter, a phenomenon attributed to the frustrations of high-rise living, has been reported in a number of Asian locales. Hong Kong recently ran an ad campaign urging high-rise dwellers not to throw things out their windows, and the government of Singapore has passed killer-litter laws, according to which offenders can be fined the equivalent of $175 and jailed for up to three months. Items cited in reports of killer litter include a tricycle, a blender, a flowerpot, an incense burner, and a television.

limber neck the inability of diseased waterfowl to hold their heads up, causing them to drown if they try to swim: "The pelicans then succumb to avian botulism.... 'First, they lose their ability to fly. Then they can't swim and so they crawl up on shore.... they can't hold their heads up. We call it limber neck.... some birds will drop off the mud banks and try to swim, but their heads are underwater. And then they drown'" (Clark Bloom, manager of the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, in The Washington Post).

BACKGROUND: Limber neck is particularly rampant among waterfowl in California's Salton Sea, a 30-mile-long, 10-mile-wide body of water that was accidentally created when the Colorado River burst through a dike in 1905. The sea has become a major stopover on the Pacific Flyway, attracting millions of migratory birds. Now fed only by runoff from industrial farmland and by some 25 million gallons a day of raw or partly treated sewage, the Salton Sea is about 20 percent saltier than the ocean and has water temperatures as high as 90° -- perfect conditions for vibrio bacteria. The bacteria weaken fish and allow botulism spores in their guts to flourish; the botulism is then passed to the waterfowl that feed on the fish.

stigmatized house a residence in which a crime or other notorious event has occurred: "The Brentwood condominium where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed. And ... the 'suicide mansion' in the San Diego suburbs where 39 cult members killed themselves.... From the cold dollars-and-cents real estate point of view, they're what's called 'stigmatized houses'" (Washington Post).

BACKGROUND: Stigmatized houses can take years to sell, and even then they tend to go for less than market value. In some cases they are bought expressly to be torn down, either by developers who rebuild on the site or by members of the community who are eager to erase a source of negative associations and, in the process, to preserve their own property values.

Illustration by Michael C. Witte

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; Word Watch; Volume 280, No. 6; page 132.