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.

flyball a relay race involving two teams of four dogs, each dog being required to jump several hurdles and catch and return with a tennis ball obtained by hitting a spring-loaded box door: "On a night traditionally set aside for gallivanting about town, these avid animal lovers have a standing date with their pets. They're here [in a warehouse] to practice flyball, the fastest-growing sport in the dog world" (Washington Post).

BACKGROUND: Flyball began in California during the late 1970s. It has since gained popularity across the United States and Canada, especially in recent years. Now there is a North American Flyball Association (founded in 1985), and there are more than 300 registered flyball clubs -- triple the number in existence just seven years ago. Some 7,000 dogs of a variety of breeds are currently registered to compete. Their owners transport them to matches in much the same way that some parents take children to participate in sports -- traveling for hours, if need be, and staying in motels. Dogs can earn personal points if their team finishes the relay within a specified time, winning such titles as Flyball Master (5,000 points) and Flyball Grand Champion (30,000 points).

marketplace a bank lobby in which customers can engage in nonbanking transactions, such as dropping off dry cleaning and buying refreshments: "In an effort to generate rent money and keep customers satisfied, Wells Fargo has transformed a handful of branches into 'marketplaces' that mix financial services with retailing.... One consequence of the ... 'marketplace' is that visitors use the building after the bank has closed for the day" (New York Times).

BACKGROUND: With the proliferation of ATMs and online banking, many older bank lobbies, quite spacious and originally intended to accommodate a large number of face-to-face transactions, are underused, if not deserted. Their transformation into marketplaces -- a new sense of a word that goes back to the fourteenth century -- comes in response to the increasingly busy lives of today's customers, who are eager to bundle multiple errands into a single trip. Ironically, the new marketplaces represent a reversal of sorts of another relatively recent banking trend -- locating ATMs in venues, such as hotel lobbies and supermarkets, that were designed for nonbanking uses.

mitigation specialist a member of a criminal-defense team who gathers detailed background material about the defendant in order to persuade a jury not to impose the death penalty: "Increasingly, lawyers defending death-penalty cases rely heavily on mitigation specialists" (U.S. News & World Report).

BACKGROUND: Though both the term and the job are probably no older than the current decade, printed evidence of both has steadily accrued, making the term a likely candidate for entry in future dictionaries. A mitigation specialist has been described as a kind of social historian who delves into the defendant's past to unearth circumstances -- childhood abuse, for example -- that might be used to paint a sympathetic picture and sway a jury toward leniency. A recent case in which a mitigation specialist was at work, seemingly with some success, is the trial of Terry Nichols in connection with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.


ZARF meaning unknown: "Effective immediately, the term ZARF will be treated as UNCLASSIFIED when standing alone or in conjunction with a classification marking. This action applies ONLY to the term ZARF. Information protected by the ZARF codeword will continue to require protection" (National Security Agency E-mail reprinted in The Washington Post Magazine).

BACKGROUND: ZARF is an anomaly in this space, which generally discusses new words whose definitions are in some way revealing about societal or other trends; ZARF is a new word whose lack of a definition is revealing. This is not the first time the government has essentially declassified a term without divulging its meaning. For example, in 1993 ISSA -- possibly a kind of high-security clearance -- was named as a requirement in an employment ad placed by a spy headhunter, without ever being defined. ("I can't tell you what an ISSA is, but the person who's got one will know," the headhunter told a reporter.) The memo declassifying ZARF was obtained last fall through a Freedom of Information Act request by Steven Aftergood. Aftergood, who is himself no stranger to codes and classifications (he is the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists), believes, having searched for the word on the Internet, that it might pertain to research on defeating enemy computer systems, or, alternatively, to intercepting electronic signals by satellite. The National Security Agency has declined to comment, and the meaning already in the dictionary is no help either: the only listing for zarf (sometimes spelled zurf) defines it as an Arabic-based word for a holder for a cup of coffee.

Illustration by Michael C. Witte

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Word Watch; Volume 283, No. 4; page 116.