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The words that got away

A lingering occupational hazard of having once written a column about words is that I keep trying to coin them.

The Irish have a term for plastic bags caught in tree branches: "witches' knickers."Matt Rourke

The other day I was rifling through the language-related drawers of my mind trying to find a term for my recent loss of interest in cooking. I used to love to cook, but somehow the pandemic, which pushed cooking from optional joy to quotidian chore, has snuffed that pleasure out. If there is a word for this unfortunate occurrence, I don’t know it, and I began wondering if I could coin one.

Once upon a time, recreational word coining was one of my professional specialties. I had a column in The Atlantic called Word Fugitives: Readers wrote in to ask for help in coining terms they felt were missing from the language, ones that might describe a sensation or a phenomenon or a thing. An example I still love is witches’ knickers, which one reader informed me is an Irishism for plastic bags caught in the branches of trees. Is there, the reader wanted to know, such a word for these billowing bags in American English?

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I published such questions, fielded the proposed coinages that other readers submitted, and awarded a nominal prize for the term I liked the best.

So my diminished passion for cooking, this back-burnered enthusiasm without a name, started me thinking about my long-lost column again.

Word Fugitives grew out of a few letters readers had sent me. Some were for words whose time has come and gone:

“My idea of hell is wandering all over a video store and not finding anything I’m in the least interested in renting. Doesn’t this activity deserve to have a name?”

Others were for words that no longer need to be invented:

“Why is there no neutral word for the third-person singular pronoun? English experts have informed me that I can’t use he, she, (s)he, they, or it.”

Many more of the questions proved to be perennials:

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“Is there a word for the common experience of saying something to your child and then realizing — often with a shock — that you sound like one of your own parents?”

For some reason, people were always suggesting déjà vu-related coinages, and my favorite answer to this question was one of them: déjà vieux, as in already old.

Here’s another example that’s stayed with me over the years: “The English language desperately needs a word for an offspring who is an adult. My eldest daughter is still my daughter, but she is certainly no longer my child.”

One correspondent reported, “My cousin calls her grown progeny my adults.” But the response that took the prize was offsprung.

The 2006 book that grew out of my column in The Atlantic.Harper

For old times’ sake, I dug out a copy of my 2006 book that grew out of the column and had a little browse:

“What is the word to describe the moment right before you are about to do something terribly stupid? The actions I mean include watching hopelessly as you knock over a beverage at dinner or insert a stack of bills into the mailbox — including the checks you had intended to take to the bank for deposit.”

People had some hilarious stories to tell in relation to this question, and they came up with some fine coinages too: déjà rue, déjà fou, pregret, dunderstruck, and instant regretification.

“What is a word to describe the process of going through the dirty-clothes hamper to find something clean enough to wear?” More fine coinages: skivvy-dipping, snifferentiate, snifting, and dry gleaning.

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“I would like a word for my tendency to make more mistakes, even doing familiar things like writing a check or slicing bread, if a very critical person is watching.”

Which do you like best: abutter-fingers, bungle of nerves, glarer-prone, tsk-oriented, or carper-fumble syndrome?

In the book, I was able to publish more questions than I’d had room for in the column, but of course these went unanswered — so I called these word fugitives “still at large” — and they remain so today. For instance:

“I would like a word for what’s sort of like the opposite of déjà vu — the feeling of learning something a hundred times but never being able to remember it.”

“I seek a word or phrase to describe a cheap plastic thing that is better for a task than its expensive metal counterpart.”

“Is there a word for something that sounds like a euphemism but isn’t? For instance, the other day I was salting cucumbers for a Middle Eastern salad I like to make. Guests were present, so I said, ‘Excuse me, I have to go turn over my cucumbers.’ You should have seen the expressions on their faces.”

“Is there a term for concentrating so hard on not saying the worst possible thing in a situation that it comes out? For instance, greeting a newly mal-coiffed friend: ‘Your hair!’”

In the years since the column was axed, I’ve been kicking myself for never having pretended I was some other reader and writing myself a letter about the words I would like to see coined.

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A word my partner and I have coined in the interim, which we use all the time, is inietta. You know those situations in which something is a fait accompli, someone thinks they want to know how it happened, but you know that if they realized how boring the story was going to be, they would gladly skip it? That’s when to say “inietta,” which is an acronym for “It’s not interesting enough to talk about.”

But the words that remain uncoined and whose lack has haunted me for decades are these:

What would be a good one-word substitute for “in spite of or perhaps because of”?

What word would convey what is actually meant, or should be meant, by “lucky” in this sense: “My car was totaled, but I walked away without a scratch.” “How lucky you are!” That’s hardly good luck — it’s just a disaster that could have been worse.

Have any of my erstwhile readers’ coinages been accepted into English? Alas, no. Allan Metcalf, executive secretary emeritus of the American Dialect Society and the author of the book “Predicting New Words,” told me that five qualities allow a new word to flourish. “The most important of the five,” he says, “is unobtrusiveness. To become part of our standard vocabulary, a new word has to look old.” That is, the cuter, the more look-at-me a new coinage is, the likelier it is to disappear into oblivion.

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As for me, I’ll be trying to think of one choice word that captures the ennui with which I face my stovetop these days. And if a sharp reader with a penchant for new coinages has a thought for what that might be, don’t let the word be a fugitive. Send it to my attention at ideas@globe.com. Just please do not call it déjà stew.

Barbara Wallraff is a writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and London.