News & Politics

Word Fugitives

There are holes in our language that have yet to be filled, and as a new book explains, it can be fun to coin them.
Normally this column space is devoted to exploring a word or phrase in the news, particularly Orwellian turns of phrases, loaded language, and other politically-charged platitudes or clichés.

But this week let's play another word game to exercise our mental faculties by literally taking a page from Barbara Wallraff's new book Word Fugitives: In Pursuit of Wanted Words.

What exactly is a word fugitive? ''Simply put, it's a word that someone is looking for, which other people helpfully try to find or coin?" Word fugitives are holes in the language that dictionary words have failed to fill,'' Wallraff explains.

Many words can be looked up in the dictionary and that's all ''well and good,'' she writes. But, as the English language develops, ''wouldn't it be handy to have a word for the momentary confusion people experience when they hear a cell phone ringing and wonder whether it's theirs?'' Think about the pre-Internet era. There was no such phrase as ''surfing the net.'' The experience of using the internet created a language void. And someone, somewhere, came up with one to fill that word-need.

One fun example from the book is: ''what is a word to describe the process of going through the dirty-clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear?'' Wallraff solicited the help of citizen bounty-hunters to track down a word and send it to her at Word Court. Some suggestions she received for this laundry language hole were skivvy-dipping, dry gleaning and snifting. It turns out smelling dirty laundry to see what is suitable to still wear is rather common as one reader pointed out, noting ''this process is familiar to anyone who has or has been a teenager.''

One more example: Duane Douglass of Maine sent Wallraff the following: ''What is the accumulation of stuff that collects under your car, behind the wheels, when driving in slush or snow?'' Wallraff not only referred to the semi-popular word for it -- snard (a collection of snow, ice, salt and road grime) -- but also shared the suggestions of readers. Fenderberg and carnicle, for example.

So let's play. I'll go first. What do you call that feeling when someone you don't even know embarrasses themselves in public and you feel embarrassed too? The word empathy, which is to feel what someone else's experiences, is too broad.

I'm relatively young but I'm still old enough to remember before there were cell phones, e-mail and caller-ID. That was back in the day when, if you called someone and no one answered, it wasn't considered avoiding or screening the call. You just called back later, if it was important enough. Nowadays, when someone calls or e-mails, there's an expectation of either immediate contact or ASAP response. What is that feeling called?

In Wallraff's book, there's a cell-phone related entry in which an APB is put out for a word that describes the person who loves to talk on their cell phone while in crowded public places like the line at the grocery store. Tim Wiener of Mexico City coined the term yakasses.

Okay, my turn again. (Don't worry, you'll get yours). Everyone is familiar with the modern psychological condition popularly known as Too Much Information, or TMI. But what about the state of mind you're in when you've involuntarily overdosed on commercials. ''Halftime is brought to you by Great Corporation?" This time out is sponsored by Another Great Corporation.'' (Okay, maybe I watch too much sports but you get the idea).

At this point, I'm waiting for Yet Another Great Corporation to start beaming advertising onto the full moon. E-mail in your own or APB for a word, along with a brief anecdote as to why you're looking for the word, or share a word you coined, and I'll publish a sampling of reader responses in this column.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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