fb-pixel Skip to main content
IDEAS

May I have a word: What to call the familiar strangers in your midst?

They’re the people you see when you’re walking down the street. You might nod at each other, but you don’t speak.

The people you recognize in your neighborhood — are they "neighquaintances," "strangebors," or something else?Adobe

Last time, I asked for a word for people you recognize in your neighborhood but have never spoken to.

Samantha Timmerman, of Melrose, Mass., and Vion, France, suggested familiar stranger.

Mark Wagner started with that phrase and condensed it to famanger. On his way there, he wrote: “The familiar stranger is a social phenomenon first addressed by the psychologist Stanley Milgram in his 1972 essay on the subject.” Stanley Milgram!? He who is best known for the controversial — some might say shockingly (pun intended) unethical — experiments on which his book “Obedience to Authority“ is based?

Advertisement



Alas, neither Samantha’s nor Mark’s suggestion will work for our purposes, because “familiar strangers” also include people whom one might recognize from elsewhere: the workplace, a lunch spot, the dog park, social media, etc.

A quite different word blend came from Samuel Jay Keyser, of Cambridge, who proposed déjà knew. That has a nice ring to it, but it’s not quite right. Déjà is French for “already,” so déjà knew would imply someone — or something — you already know, non?

And more blends! Michael Malyszko, of Boston, suggested strangebor, adding: “One of my favorite interactions is when you’ve noticed someone for years, if not decades, and of course, you never speak to them — but when you see them out of your normal context, you immediately say hello to each other. It’s happened to me a few times, usually in a foreign country.”

Leslie Beatty, of Manchester-by-the-Sea, and Larry C. Kerpelman, of Acton, came up with neighborwho. So did Sara Arnold, of Clinton, who explained the coinage like this: “Someone in your neighborhood that you have to ask ‘who?’ about because you don’t personally know them. You could also say neighborwhom if you wanted to be more formal.”

Advertisement



Oh dear, Sara. As you obviously know, whom has fallen out of favor — except with me, which is why I used the word a few paragraphs ago. The problem most people have with it, I expect, is that it sounds formal. But it isn’t really. Whom is to who what them is to they: Who is a subject and whom is an object, as in “Who wants to tell whom that we’re veering off track?”

Back to the hunt for the wanted word.

Tony Divincenzo, of Beverly, coined neighblank; Ann Madzar, of Natick, coined nighbor; and Anil Adyanthaya, of Newton Upper Falls, coined ehbor, explaining: “Eh can be an expression of doubt or uncertainty, which is what I imagine would occur if you ran into each other outside the neighborhood.”

Jock Hoffman, of Arlington, wrote: “We call the people who live near us that we don’t know heybors, because when we pass them, we say hey — and nothing more.” Thinking along similar lines, Patti Vangsness, of Medway, proposed heighbor. Mike Crooks, of Marietta, Ga., sent me heyquaintance. John Klingenstein, of Franklin, reported that his wife coined neighquaintance.

Ken Lakritz, of Winchester, and Avrum Mayman, of Canton, both suggested anoneighbor. Kent Barclay, of Beverly, shortened that further to anonabor. Stephen L. Needles, of Newtown, Pa., wrote, “I propose anonymiss for a female and anonymister for a male.” But, Stephen, that’s so old-fashioned. Can I talk you into anonymx?

Kath Connolly, of Charlestown, wanted the folks in question to be called neighbornods, because they’re “familiar faces you nod and smile at.” Lisa O’Neill, of Groton, reported: “I call these people smileandnods. We may not know each other’s names, but after all these years I can’t help but smile and nod when I see them!”

Advertisement



Joel Angiolillo, of Weston, wrote, succinctly: “The friendship ladder: soulmate > companion > buddy > partner > pal > friend > neighbor > acquaintance > nodder > stranger > alien.” I might question the order of some of the other rungs on Joel’s ladder, but nodder is surely in its proper place, and I love it. It trips off the tongue, it’s pretty much self-explanatory, and I can well imagine that it might catch on. I hereby award Joel bragging rights. Nice work, Joel!

And on to the next challenge. A while ago, Jim Harrison, of Gainesville, Fla., requested a word that I too have long wished we had. The word that got me wondering was milk. It just looked absurd on the page.

Jim wrote: “Sometimes when a single word is repeated and I’m closely examining the writing, I find myself at a point of overexposure — and suddenly the word seems wrong. Alien. The word seems to beg, ‘How did we ever decide that this combination of sounds should have this meaning?’ I remember it happening with purse and just recently with first. Oddly enough, it’s the simplest words that elicit this response. What should we call it?”

Advertisement



Send your ideas to me at Barbara.Wallraff@globe.com by noon on Friday, June 10, and kindly include where you live. Responses may be edited.

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