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The Atlantic Monthly | December 2003
Word Fugitives

by Barbara Wallraff
n the July/August issue we asked for "a word to denote the tendency of traffic to cluster around and behind highway patrol cars on rural interstates because no one dares to pass the trooper vehicle." Michael Slancik, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, responded, "When I look in the rearview mirror of my patrol car and see that traffic cluster, I, like most of us 'on the job,' refer to it as V'd up. Some of us are also goose hunters and use the term for geese flying in V-formation." Gerard Farrell, of Navasota, Texas, wrote, "I can't speak to the drivers' tendencies, but in this state we refer to the police vehicle itself as a rolling roadblock." Alan Fryar, of Lexington, Kentucky, had it the other way around, though. He wrote, "My cousin, a former Kentucky state policeman, referred to the tendency of traffic to stagnate behind him on I-75 as a rolling roadblock."

Jim Reid, of Guelph, Ontario, wrote, "As coincidence would have it, on my way to buy The Atlantic I found myself suddenly braking with a string of other cars as a police cruiser appeared from a dirt side road. It then held us grimly at the speed limit. Skidlock describes the immediate response to a police car." And Mark Penney, of West Lafayette, Indiana, says that in the environs of the Indianapolis 500, "for obvious reasons we refer to this as the pace-car phenomenon."

I loved the word that Sam P. Allen, of Toledo, Ohio, and Naples, Florida, submitted to describe "the human condition that prevents motorists from passing a police patrol car": arrestlessness. As for the people who hang back behind a patrol car, a few readers designated them road worriers. A highly popular submission was cruiser control. Patricia Chu, of Houston, Texas, suggested giving new meaning to the term ticketless travel. And Jerome Kamer, of Los Angeles, thought of slowest common speedometer. Alas, those terms don't do the job requested: describing the tendency.

One that does was submitted by several people, including Kurt Sauer, of Bethesda, Maryland, who said he learned it from listening to police officers when he worked as a paramedic, and Frank Williams, of Tempe, Arizona, who learned it from a former director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. But Dan Schechter, of Los Alamitos, California, explained it best and so takes top honors. Schechter wrote, "Some California Highway Patrol officers call the phenomenon the halo effect. The term has a double meaning: the drivers suddenly behave like angels, and the angels form an annoying halo around the patrol car."

Also sought was a word for the befuddlement that sets in as teachers grade papers. Laura Zlogar, of River Falls, Wisconsin, wrote, "As a college English teacher for thirty years, I often find myself questioning basic facts and having to check the spelling of perfectly common words after hours of exposure to the confused states of mind reflected in students' writing. I call this malady temporary inanity." Deborah Carter, of Walkersville, Maryland, wrote, "I'm a teacher too, and I've always thought of this phenomenon as wisdumb."

Anutosh Moitra, of Sammamish, Washington, suggested amissgivings; Eunice Van Loon, of Biloxi, Mississippi, bogmindling; Jim Lemon, of Gladesville, New South Wales, Australia, contaminotion; Lisa Bergtraum, of New York City, errattled; C. Bernard Barfoot, of Alexandria, Virginia, nonsensery overload; Doug and Kay Overbey, of Maryville, Tennessee, numbleminded; and Carol DeMoranville, of Steward, Illinois, righter's block. Various people suggested factigue, examnesia, and misleducation.

And taking top honors here is Tom Dorman, of Sedro-Woolley, Washington, who wrote, "As a high school teacher, I can sympathize. My ninth-graders have recently convinced me that the Norman Conquest took place in 1951, that Samson and Goliath had a torrid affair (don't tell the school board), and that car pedium means 'seize your movement.' Correct tests like this late into the night to meet your grade deadline and you, too, will feel doubt-witted by your students."

Now MARC BURCKHARDT, of Austin, Texas, writes, "I'd love to have a term for those people who leave long, rambling messages on answering machines and then rattle off their phone numbers at lightning speed in the last second, forcing you to repeat the entire message to get the all-important digits."

And SUSAN COCKRELL, of Holden, Maine, writes, "My husband and I are in search of a word for the fear of throwing a party and having no one show up."

Send words that meet Marc Burckhardt's or Susan Cockrell'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 www.the Submissions must be received by December 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 The Language Police, by Diane Ravitch; The Boy Who Loved Windows, by Patricia Stacey; and Monster of God, by David Quammen.

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The Atlantic Monthly; December 2003; Word Fugitives; Volume 292, No. 5; 180.