Contents | June 2001

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April 2001
February 2001

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The Atlantic Monthly | June 2001
 
Word Fugitives

by Barbara Wallraff
 

hen the February Atlantic invited readers to come up with two word fugitives, or terms that other readers sought, hundreds responded. One of the wanted words was a masculine counterpart to hysteria. If each suggestion that arrived counted as a vote, the winner by far would have been testeria, submitted by more than seventy people. A number of histerias, hersterias, and malestroms came in as well. Nancy Strauss, of Excelsior, Minnesota, suggested malefeasance; Mort Somer, of Ogden, Utah, suggested manic expressive; and two votes were cast in favor of male-pattern badness.

Many people, though, protested that English already contains the necessary term. Some wanted to turn malevolence or mania to the purpose at hand (among them Tom Doyle, of Bristol, Connecticut, who pointed out that the plural of mania in this sense should be menia). A few, including Sam Abrams, of Rochester, New York, made a case for musth. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Abrams wrote, musth is "applied to male animals ... in a state of dangerous frenzy to which they are subject at irregular intervals." Several readers mentioned that testosterone poisoning is current in approximately the sense wanted, and yet others suggested that testiness might fit the bill.

A different existing word, though, earns top honors for one of the several people who proposed it. As it happens, the reader who thought of it first also sent it along in a conspicuously charming letter—and charm, as well as promptness, counts. Lavaine Peterson, of Cloquet, Minnesota, proposed ballistic, explaining, "Yes, even though I'm almost seventy-two and a devoted Lutheran churchgoer, I am thinking in a somewhat naughty manner. However, if it will do something to cut down on road rage, the embarrassment will be worth it. Besides, I'd like those free books." Done.

urely a term to describe mistakenly written homonyms (your for you're, for instance) would earn its keep in a language that has already made room for such specific words as protonym, "the first person or thing to have a certain name, after which others are named"; poecilonym, "one of various names for the same thing"; and anonym, "a person whose name is not given"—as the author of this word-fugitive request will be this month, although she received credit by name in the February issue.

From the archives:

"From Your Lips to Your Printer" (December 2000)
Finally, voice-recognition software that (almost) lives up to its promise to liberate those unable or unwilling to type. By James Fallows
Ian Piumarta, of Versailles, France, wrote, "Grammarians and linguists alike have for many centuries been in possession of a (somewhat technical) term describing precisely this kind of syntactic substitution. It is called a mistake." (Or a misteak, or a misstake, as others suggested.) Lee Dawley, of South Ryegate, Vermont, wrote to say that he in particular would welcome the coining of an appropriate word. He has multiple sclerosis, which forces him to use a voice-recognition computer program in order to write. He reported, "No sooner did I say homonyms than this malfunctioning piece of software gave me holograms. And what did it give me for fugitives? Primitives!"

Nononym was a popular suggestion, submitted by six people. Laura Markos, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, coined errerr; Felicia Lincoln, of Kennet Square, Pennsylvania, sinonym; and Philip Walker, of Mississauga, Ontario, doppelklanger. John Ford, of Coquitlam, British Columbia, wrote, "Since bird-watching is called ornithology, why can't we call that kind of word-botching orthinology?"

For cleverness combined with aptness, however, nothing beat illiteration. Three readers submitted this idea; taking top honors is Rocky Raab, of Ogden, Utah, who was the first to do so.

Now David F. Wilson, of Stamford, New York, writes, "We need a word that means 'a problem caused by a blundering or heavy-handed attempt to cure another problem.' Examples include parties at off-campus apartments because eighteen-year-olds aren't allowed to drink in bars, and groundwater contaminated with MTBE, which is put in gasoline to reduce pollution."

And Dave Goldenberg, of Ridgefield, Connecticut, writes, "In a doctor's office I came across a copy of Popular Mechanics, a magazine I loved in my youth for its 'flying car' visions of the world of tomorrow. I was overcome by nostalgia for the future as envisioned in the past, and wished there were a simple term to describe it. I look forward to looking back to the time when this lexical omission was remedied."


Send words that serve David Wilson's or Dave Goldenberg's purposes to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or visit the Word Fugitives page on our Web site, at www.theatlantic.com/fugitives. Submissions must be received by June 30. Use the same addresses to submit word fugitives that you'd like The Atlantic's help in finding. Letters become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited.

Readers whose queries are published and those whose words are singled out for top honors will each receive, with our thanks, a selection of recent autographed books by
Atlantic authors. The next installment's correspondents will be sent Free Flight, by James Fallows; Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser; and The Truth About Dogs, by Stephen Budiansky.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.


Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2001; Word Fugitives; Volume 287, No. 6; p. 112.