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The Atlantic Monthly | May 2004
Word Fugitives

by Barbara Wallraff
ast December this page sought a word for "people who leave long, rambling messages on answering machines and then rattle off their phone numbers at lightning speed in the last second." Of the many people who responded, exactly two dared to admit that they'd ever left such messages themselves. Steve Billington, of Vancouver, British Columbia, suggested the coinage "idiodidactiphone: a foolish information provider on your telephone" and confessed, "Sadly, I am among the guilty." Eric C. Besch, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, began by explaining himself: "Somehow I am always befuddled not to have a person answer my call." Besch's suggested term was prolixety-split.

Ted Garon, of Mission Viejo, California, wrote not to propose a word but to share his solution to the problem, which, he boasted, has "failed only once in the past three years." His answering-machine message is carefully enunciated and ends like this: "Please say your phone number slowly. We have an elderly butler."

Susan Wallace, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, coined speedtalking and had an unusual point of view on the phenomenon. She wrote, "In ESL classes I teach at a community college, telephone practice is a crucial need among nearly all the students. If you think it's tough understanding a message left on the answering machine in your own language, just imagine trying to decipher a message left by a fast-talking doctor's assistant in a language you're just beginning to comprehend."

David P. Nagle, a college professor in Norman, Oklahoma, had no sympathy at all for the perpetrators who get in touch with him: "students whose breathless cell-phone messages fall into cell hell right after a 'dog ate my homework' statement, during the 'please call me right away at [unintelligible]' finale." Nagle's coinage was a variant on what was probably the most popular suggestion: prestodigitators.

And Gregory Pierce, of New York City, wrote, "As an English tutor, I've had to listen to epic phone messages from high schoolers who are in the 'diction is uncool' phase. After listening to a long chain of ums and uhs, I usually can't understand the crucial digits at the end. I call these people number-mumblers. Since there have been so many, I've recently shortened the term to numblers." Pierce wasn't the only person to propose this last term, but his explanation for it earns him top honors.

The other December fugitive sought was a word for "the fear of throwing a party and having no one show up." Considering the time of year when this challenge was issued, it's remarkable that only one person, Chris Macdonald, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, proposed the coinage AuldLangXiety.

Kristin Lee, of Exeter, New Hampshire, wrote to say that thinking about this word fugitive had seen her through a long night of being stranded at Baltimore/Washington International Airport with a seven-year-old. That experience no doubt helps explain what she came up with: No guests for the leery.

Judy Wagner, of Philadelphia, wrote, "As a former event planner, I can identify. Humilibration pretty much sums it up for me." Dawn M. Reeler, of Atlanta, suggested qualmaraderie. Zach Wechsler, of Los Angeles, proposed fiestanoguestaphobia. Drew Slatton, of Mount Tabor, New Jersey, wrote, "This annoying little fear, which manifests itself as a hole in the pit of one's stomach, is known as guestnoenteritis." Coinages that many people proposed include guestlessness and empty-fest syndrome.

Kathleen DeBold, of Burtonsville, Maryland, takes top honors. Not only is she no stranger to the fear in question, but her word even suggests a slight shift of mindset to make party-givers' anticipation less stressful. DeBold wrote, "I am the executive director of a small nonprofit, and we rely on fundraising events for a third of our income. I know too well the dreaded feeling that our party will be a bomb. I call it fête-alism."

Now Gail Jarocki, of Richmond, California, writes, "What is a word to describe the process of going through the dirty-clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear?"

And Andy Paleologopoulos, of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, writes, "There is a traffic light that is always red when I approach from one direction on the way to work, but when I approach from a different direction on the way home, it is always red in that direction. What is the word for this ability of a traffic light to sense my approach and turn red, knowing it is me?"

Send words that meet Gail Jarocki's or Andy Paleologopoulos's needs to Word Fugitives, The Atlantic Monthly, 77 North Washington Street, Boston, MA 02114. Submissions must be received by May 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; The Early Stories: 1953-1975, by John Updike; and my own Your Own Words.

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Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2004; Word Fugitives; Volume 293, No. 4; 164.