'Word Fugitives:' In Pursuit of Wanted Words You notice some everyday phenomenon and search for the word that defines it — only to realize no such word exists. With the help of Atlantic readers, word maven Barbara Wallraff fills in the blanks in a new book.
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'Word Fugitives:' In Pursuit of Wanted Words

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'Word Fugitives:' In Pursuit of Wanted Words

'Word Fugitives:' In Pursuit of Wanted Words

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: I bet you know this feeling. You notice some everyday phenomenon, something that always happens, and search for the word that defines it only to realize no such word exists. Well, word maven Barbara Wallraff rustles up what she calls these word fugitives in her column in The Atlantic Monthly. Her readers supply their ideas for word fugitives and the word sought. For example.

SUSAN STAMBERG: My husband and I are in search of a word for the fear of throwing a party and having no one show up.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, fete-alism. Here's another, when I stand in line I always think the line next to me is moving faster. What's the word that describes my thinking?

Unidentified Female: How about miss-a-line-ment. What's the word to describe the process of going through the dirty clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear?

STAMBERG: Dry-gleaning. What about a word for people who send emails and then follow up saying did you get my email message?

BLOCK: That would be redun-dunces. All those examples are in Barbara Wallraff's book Word Fugitives: In Pursuit of Wanted Words.

BARBARA WALLRAFF (Author): I really like word fugitives that relate to people's everyday lives. There are a lot of technological fugitives. We have names for the things but now we need words for what we do with them.

BLOCK: I like one that was submitted by Alison Johnson of Glendale, Calif. And she was looking for this fugitive. 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 or hers or not.

Ms. WALLRAFF: And you'd think with the coming of all these different ring tones that that would be history even by now, but no. People still experience panda-phonium.

BLOCK: Panda-phonium?


BLOCK: There were some other suggestions that came in. Ring-chronicity from a reader in Berkeley, Calif. That's nice.

Ms. WALLRAFF: And ring-xiety. I remember that one.

BLOCK: And then here's one that's maybe just a little too clever. One word here. Fauxcellarm. F-A-U-X-C-E-L-L-A-R-M.

Ms. WALLRAFF: It really is hard to come up with one that isn't just a clever word, if you're really trying to be helpful. It was a very specific question that somebody asked. The momentary confusion when you hear the cell phone ringing. You get a lot of things that aren't quite that.

BLOCK: You know in some of these cases, I think I find myself liking the question, the idea that's sought maybe more than the answers that come in. Did you find that too?

Ms. WALLRAFF: Yeah sometimes the questions, you put them out there, and you think okay, how is this going to turn out? And you love the question and then you're a little disappointed in the responses. One of those is somebody saying, and saying really vehemently, there ought to be a word that you say to somebody who's coughed because coughing is more common than sneezing, and we all say gazundheidt, or God bless you when people sneeze. But there were just a trickle compared with the usual number of responses to this. And then my favorite, ended up picking something that was in Neapolitan dialect. Please don't ask me to say it.

BLOCK: Okay. I won't.

Ms. WALLRAFF: But it was said to be translated as, I hope you have some lung left and won't die.

BLOCK: (LAUGH) Which you hope the person whose coughing doesn't understand the meaning of, I guess. Do you think any of these words that you talk about here, will they end up in the dictionary? Have any of them actually made it into the lexicon?

Ms. WALLRAFF: I'm not sure. I know that one word out of a hundred or so that appeared in a spurious dictionary from 1914. The one word from that entire dictionary that's still in the language is blurb. Words that are invented and that are fun are sometimes a little too showy for people to actually feel comfortable using them as real words. So if you want to invent a real word, you want it to kind of fly below the radar. You want it to be unostentatious, preferably nobody will know that you made up the word that you're using. That's a whole different thing from word fugitives. I want these words to come out and make themselves known, and entertain people.

BLOCK: That's Barbara Wallraff talking about her book, Word Fugitives, which are words that don't exist but maybe should. And that brings us to another ALL THINGS CONSIDERED contest. (APPLAUSE)

Here's what we want. We want you, our listeners, to send us your ideas for this word fugitive. We're looking for a word that describes this phenomenon.

STAMBERG: What do you call those times when you think you're going to sneeze and it feels like it's almost there and it's about to happen, and you draw a breath in, ahh, and it just goes away. Leaves you disappointed.

BLOCK: That's the question. Send us your ideas for the word that perfectly describes that sensation. Log on to our website NPR.org. And look for Word Fugitives in Links Heard on Air. We'll read the best suggestions on air next week.

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