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The Atlantic Monthly | March 2004
Word Fugitives

by Barbara Wallraff
n response to last October's requests for fugitive words, the usual array of clever neologisms arrived. And so did an unusual number of letters asserting that the words sought already exist. This time, as on some previous occasions, top honors go to authors of responses in the second category.

The first word sought was for "a situation in which you refuse to accept that the occurrence of two events is merely coincidental but there is no evidence to link them together." For this the neologisms included fauxincidence, coincivince, coincidon't, duperstition, and wishful linking.

Clement J. Colucci, of the Bronx, wrote, "The word apophenia was coined for that condition in 1958." The Skeptic's Dictionary, by Robert Todd Carroll, bears Colucci out ("Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena"). Standard dictionaries, however, do not list the word.

Tom Johnson, of Morris, Minnesota, reported, "The term illusory correlation has been used for many years in the behavioral sciences." And Jan Swearingen, of Bryan, Texas, wrote, "In more than one religious tradition the discipline of discernment is taught and encouraged through reflection, meditation, or prayer. Discernment is the ability to sense the deeper meaning of similarities, repetitions, and echoes among otherwise random and 'coincidental' events."

A number of readers offered synchronicity, explaining that the word originated with the psychologist Carl Jung. Robert Barth, of Salt Lake City, takes top honors for supplying a definitive reference. He wrote, "In his book Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, published in 1952, Carl Gustav Jung coined the word to describe such events and advanced the following definition: 'Synchronicity ... consists of two factors: a) An unconscious image comes into consciousness either directly (i.e., literally) or indirectly (symbolized or suggested) in the form of a dream, idea, or premonition. b) An objective situation coincides with this content. The one is as puzzling as the other.'" Indeed!

The second fugitive sought was for "the phenomenon wherein a mechanical or electronic device, having gone on the blink, resumes working perfectly while the repair person examines it." Among the neologisms submitted for this were devious ex machina, deus hex machina, afixia, refixcidivism, rekaputulation, on the wink, and hocus operandi.

Michael Deskey, of New York City, sent along a photocopy of a chapter of the 1963 book A Short History of Fingers and Other State Papers, by H. Allen Smith, to establish that the phenomenon in question demonstrates the workings of Fetridge's Law. In 1936 an NBC radio engineer named Claude Fetridge attempted to broadcast, live, the flight of the swallows from Mission San Juan Capistrano, in California. Unfortunately, that year the swallows skipped out of San Juan Capistrano on October 22, a day earlier than tradition calls for, and a lot of personnel and equipment arrived just in time to record nothing in particular. How does this relate? In H. Allen Smith's words, "Fetridge's Law, in simple language, states that important things that are supposed to happen do not happen, especially when people are looking or, conversely, things that are supposed to not happen do happen, especially when people are looking."

That's certainly the right general idea, but something more specific was wanted. Dirk Vanderloop, of Chico, California, wrote, "The condition described is all too familiar to me as a former automotive and aerospace technician. The official industrial term is intermittent failure." And Jeff Abbas, of Minneapolis, takes top honors. He wrote, "Inconsistent malfunctions in machinery are known as gremlins." Sure enough, The American Heritage Dictionary gives the definition "an imaginary gnomelike creature to whom mechanical problems, especially in aircraft, are attributed."

Now Arvin V. Reyes, of Quezon City, the Philippines, writes, "Like many urbanites, I stand in line many times during the day, such as when eating lunch in a fast-food outlet. When I stand in line, I always think that the line next to me is moving faster. That is what usually happens. Can you help me with a word to describe my thinking?"

And Allison A. Johnson, of Glendale, California, writes, "I'm looking for a term that describes the momentary confusion experienced by everyone in the vicinity when a cell phone rings and no one is sure if it is his/hers or not."

Send words that meet Arvin Reyes's or Allison Johnson's's purposes to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114. 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 Mediterranean Winter, by Robert D. Kaplan; Faith: Stories, by C. Michael Curtis; and The Early Stories: 1953-1975, by John Updike.

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The Atlantic Monthly; March 2004; Word Fugitives; Volume 293, No. 2; 152.