Return of the Fugitives!

A word fugitive is a wanted word or expression, one that someone has been unable to call to mind. Quite probably no exactly apt term exists -- but maybe one should. Those familiar with The Meaning of Liff (1983), by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, or Sniglets (1984), by Rich Hall and Friends, may find it helpful to think of word fugitives as empty mental spaces waiting to be filled by neologisms like the ones that appeared in those books. Readers who are well acquainted with Atlantic Unbound may already be familiar with Word Fugitives, which made its debut here, in November of 1998 (and ran through December of 1999).

Readers are again invited to submit new word fugitives they seek, for the feature has made the leap into print. Beginning with The Atlantic's February issue, the magazine, in alternate months, will present two new word fugitives at a time and will also publish responses to earlier fugitives. Readers whose queries are published and those whose coinages are singled out for top honors will each receive, with the magazine's thanks, a selection of recent autographed books by Atlantic authors.

For inspiration, you may wish to turn to our Court Record page, where many of the letters that appeared in the online feature, together with the responses to them, can still be found.

To submit new word fugitives, please use the form on the submissions page, or e-mail me at Letters become the property of Word Fugitives and may be edited.

--Barbara Wallraff

Fugitives Flee -- the Police Are Here!
I never would have imagined, when the Word Fugitives feature began appearing online, that it would be a staple of Atlantic Unbound for more than a year. But that's how long it remained active.

Word Fugitives has also, since the beginning, in November 1998, been a Yahoo Pick of the Week and a Dummies Daily site. It's been mentioned in Popular Science. And Canadian Public Radio has evidently seen fit to imitate it, adding a Most Wanted Word feature to its Web site.

Then, too, some of my favorite Fugitives are included in my book, Word Court, which has just been published by Harcourt Brace. Next time you're in a bookstore, have a browse through it and see if the same Fugitives particularly intrigued you. (You can also browse through an archive of "Most Wanted Words" in The Court Record.)

What do you say we quit while we're ahead? In fact the Atlantic Unbound people and I have created a new feature that we hope you'll find even more entertaining: Word Police!

--Barbara Wallraff
January 13, 2000

by Barbara Wallraff
As the author of The Atlantic's Word Court column, I often receive letters from people wanting to know whether there's a word for something or other. Even while they haven't a clue what their word might be, they feel that it must exist, or it should.

They have a point. At least a million English "lexemes," or words, acronyms, plant and animal names, and so forth, are in current use, according to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal (1995), and thousands of new words are coined each year. My colleague Anne Soukhanov presents resonant examples of these in her Word Watch column three times a year: among the words she's had her eye on lately are Beltropolis, para-parenting, corporate anorexia, and push polling.

All the same, our language has at times exhibited startling gaps. For instance, as Bill Bryson explained in his Made in America (1994), "Walking was such an unquestioned feature of everyday life that until 1791, when William Wordsworth coined the term pedestrian, there was no special word to describe someone on foot. (Interestingly, pedestrian as an adjective meaning dull or unimaginative is significantly older, having been coined in 1716.)"

Even today we lack a concise way to say "because of, or perhaps in spite of." We have no word for the French voilà -- except voilà. On my shelf sits an entire book, They Have a Word for It, by Howard Rheingold (1988), introducing and describing foreign words for which we have no equivalent. In truth, English has directly imported some of these -- like Zeitgeist, from German, and mantra, from Sanskrit. Others are perhaps more culture- or climate-specific (alas!). For instance, in Bantu mbuki-mvuki means "to shuck off clothes in order to dance."

Who knows, then, whether we have a word for any of the ideas in the accompanying lineup: America's 10 Most Wanted Words. Some years ago, with the publication of The Meaning of Liff (1983), by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, and Sniglets (1984), by Rich Hall, the recreational coining of words enjoyed a vogue. You may call the entries here Sniglets if you like; I think of them as Word Fugitives. They have come from The Atlantic's readers, diverse, curious, and engaged as they are. This isn't a quiz or a puzzle. I really don't know if words exist for these things or ideas. And unfortunately, no reference book can settle whether they do, for reverse dictionaries are quite limited in their usefulness.

If you know a, um, lexeme that fits the description of one of America's 10 Most Wanted Words, or if you'd care to coin one, then I hope you'll join the discussion in Post & Riposte about that Word Fugitive. (Please note: to keep this discussion tightly focused, posts that are thoroughly off the point or offensive will be removed.)

And if you are seeking a Word Fugitive of your own, please do tell me about it, by sending e-mail to The best candidates I receive will in due course take their places among America's 10 Most Wanted Words, replacing Word Fugitives that readers have tracked down and ones about which no one has much to share. Word Fugitives that have been retired from the 10 Most Wanted list, and the discussion about them, will be browsable in the Court Record, where you will also find a compilation of Word Court columns, which have appeared in The Atlantic since 1995.

Discuss the current 10 Most Wanted Words in the Word Fugitives conference of Post & Riposte.

E-mail your suggestions for new Word Fugitives to Please include your real name and home town. If we publish your letter, this information will be included, unless you indicate otherwise. We will not publish your e-mail address. Also please note that all letters become the property of Word Fugitives, for use in this or other forms.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.