Word Watch

Illustration by Michael Witte

The Encarta World English Dictionary (1999).

blow-in someone who has recently taken up residence in a given country or area: "[He] had a theory about what one Irish Prime Minister referred to as 'blow-ins' -- foreign settlers in Ireland. 'Mental dwarfs we are for them,' he said; they see the Irish people as simpleminded and easily managed" (The New Yorker).

BACKGROUND: The noun blow-in is derived from the verb phrase blow in, a slang term originating in American English, traceable at least to 1882, and meaning "to arrive." However, print references to the noun are confined almost exclusively to England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. An exception: a 1967 citation in the Dictionary of American Regional English,. pin-pointing the word's use in Lynn, Massachusetts, where a blow-in was "somebody who is not from your community, and doesn't belong." The noun is unrelated to the phrase blow-in card, which refers to a postcard-sized subscription card that is injected between the pages of a magazine by forced air during the binding process.

dead ringer "Hello? Hello? Helloooo? The annoying silence you hear on the phone line may be ... a 'dead ringer.' It happens when a telemarketer's automatic dialing system, called a predictive dialer, simultaneously phones many homes. If too many people pick up, the machine disconnects some of the calls" (U.S. News & World Report).
BACKGROUND: The established sense of the term dead ringer -- an exact counterpart or duplicate -- can be traced back to 1891. The telemarketing sense is the only new meaning of the term to emerge in the years since. Dead ringers have been increasingly reported in recent months and are coming under the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission and some state attorneys general: not only are they an annoyance, but recipients find them indistinguishable from the hang-up calls associated with pre-burglary stakeouts and with stalking.

hikikomori 1. a near-total social withdrawal on the part of some Japanese young people, chiefly teenage boys and young men: "Linked to the upsurge in child violence is the phenomenon of hikikomori ... in which young people sever contact as far as possible with the outside world" (Scotland on Sunday). 2. a young Japanese who has chosen such a withdrawal: "'I didn't want anyone to see me, and I didn't want to see anyone,' says a hikikomori, 23, who finally came out of his reclusive world a year ago" (Time).
BACKGROUND: The use of the word hikikomori -- in Japanese, "shutting oneself inside" -- to describe a widespread social and psychiatric phenomenon originated with Shizuo Machizawa, a Japanese psychiatrist who specializes in adolescent personality disorders. Experts estimate that there are at least 50,000 hikikomori. Although articles in the Japanese press have attributed a recent rise in Japan's violent-crime rate in part to hikikomori, psychiatrists say that most hikikomori are not violent, just antisocial. The phenomenon is said to result from such stresses as the pressure to conform and the shame associated with academic or other failure.

self-scanner a self-service check-out system whereby supermarket customers scan the bar codes on their purchases, weigh their produce, bag their groceries, and total and pay the amount owed. Also called self-checker. "Grocers are installing self-scanners at grocery store checkouts. Wal-Marts, drugstores and other retailers could soon follow" (The Atlanta Journal and Constitution).
BACKGROUND: Self-scanners were developed in 1995 by a Canadian company, but they have gotten their start primarily in the United States. Their adoption has been attributed to the tight labor market (and accompanying rise in retail wages) and to customers' desire to minimize shopping time. The equipment includes safeguards against mistakes and theft: it records the weights of items as they are scanned, and alerts a nearby clerk if a customer's bags are heavier than they ought to be. Self-scanners are part of a long-term trend characterized by ATMs, self-serve gas pumps, and self-serve beverage stations in fast-food outlets. Retailers who have implemented self-scanners acknowledge that many customers prefer face-to-face interaction and say that the technology is intended to supplement, not replace, human cashiers.

Anne H. Soukhanov is the U.S. general editor of The Encarta World English Dictionary (1999).

Illustration by Michael C. Witte.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Word Watch - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 128.