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The Atlantic Monthly | March 2003
Word Fugitives

by Barbara Wallraff
tlantic readers found last October's Word Fugitives requests easy to relate to—and mostly were sorry they did. First requested was "a word for that feeling that you always arrive after the heyday, the boom, or the free ride." Yvonne deReynier, of Seattle, was one of many who made a generational association, and took the matter personally. "It's a feeling I'm familiar with myself," she admitted, and suggested the term GenXasperation. Several correspondents suggested such terms as late boomer and buster. Kiki Rootham, of Washington, Connecticut, wrote, "This is such a well-defined, tiny demographic that I'll bet I could estimate your letter writer's age within a few years. Those of us who attended grade school as schools were being consolidated and closed, and who finished college just as the 1990 crash dissolved most real jobs, will know what I mean."

Then again, Robert F. Dieli, of Hinsdale, Illinois, wrote, "The word should be well known to those of you who live in Boston. The term is Red Sox fan. A slightly less virulent form of the condition exists here in the Midwest, where the term is Cubs fan." Louise Kertesz, of Oxnard, California, thought neither of Gen X nor of baseball but of poetry—specifically, she tried to make an eponym out of Edwin Arlington Robinson's Miniver Cheevy, who was "born too late." And so "Miniver loved the Medici, / Albeit he had never seen one; / He would have sinned incessantly / Could he have been one."

General-purpose coinages received include fate and switch, from Andrea Ball, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; latedown, from Dennis Harbaugh, of Waterloo, Iowa; missappointment, from several readers; serendiplash, from Margaret Swanson, of Chatham, Massachusetts; and unjust in time, from T. H. Arnold, of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"There has long been an idiomatic expression to describe this feeling: missing the boat," wrote Lorraine Smith, of Fort Pierce, Florida. Also familiar with that phrase is Bruce Carlson, of Cincinnati, who jumped right off the deep end in pursuit of the goal, writing, "I suggest a combination of two phrases my parents used to use: my mother's 'Well, I guess you missed the boat on that one, Bruce,' and my father's comment while reading the evening paper, 'Those bastards are really on the gravy train, aren't they?' My suggestion for a phrase describing arriving after a heyday, therefore, would be missing the gravy boat."

But top honors here go to Kathleen Rudden, of Brooklyn, for sharing an existing expression that is both unusual and apt. Rudden wrote, "The deaf have a sign for the word: train-go-sorry. You can find a definition of it at"

The second October question was "Is there a word to describe someone who can read but can't pronounce words?" (Note to the correspondent who was driven crazy by the example "Follow the gweed at the cathedral": gweed is standing in for guide.) Jake Fey, of Berlin, Germany, wrote, "As an English teacher in Berlin, I often run into this phenomenon. These students may learn to read English, but they definitely do not speak English. Instead, I tell them, they speak Booklish."

Carol Takyi, of Sherwood Park, Alberta, wrote that her husband, "as a young West African arriving to study in the United States in the fifties, learned to pronounce many English words the hard way—for instance, by going to a music store and asking to look at their hee-fees." And Patrick McDougall, of Montreal, Quebec, wants it on record that he had a thirty-seven-year career as a radio announcer despite having pronounced, in his early days on the job, "misled to rhyme with whistled and infrared to rhyme with compared." Surely we've all fallen victim at one time or another—for instance, when faced with Goethe and Hippocrates, Thucydides and Liberace, chimera and paradigm. But what to call the condition? Two readers suggested tome-deaf, and the one who proposed it first was Don Slutes, of Phoenix, so Slutes takes top honors.

Now Helen S. Sharpe, of Albany, New York, writes, "I would like a word for my tendency to make more mistakes, even doing familiar things like writing a check or slicing bread, if a very critical person is watching."

And Jonathan Zuber, of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, writes, "I'd like a verb meaning 'to go to do something and return having absentmindedly done one or more other things instead.'"

Send words that meet Helen Sharpe's or Jonathan Zuber's needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114, or visit the Word Fugitives page on our Web site, at Submissions must be received by March 31. 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 I Want That!, by Thomas Hine; Snobbery: The American Version, by Joseph Epstein; and All Is Vanity, by Christina Schwarz.

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

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2003; Word Fugitives; Volume 291, No. 2; 136.