Barbara Wallraff’s Word Fugitives
Inspired by Steven Pinker’s reference to it in The Stuff of Thought, I ordered Barbara Wallraff’s book Word Fugitives. Barbara had a column of this name in which one reader would propose an idea that deserved a new word to express it and other readers would propose candidates. Barbara’s book draws on several other books, including Rich Hall’s book Sniglets (Snig’lit: Any Word That Doesn’t Appear in the Dictionary, But Should), which has given the name “sniglets” to a wished-for word. Barbara has been selective, and I will be even more selective.
The holy grail of word coining is a set of gender neutral singular pronouns that succeed at becoming generally accepted; a huge number of candidates have been proposed for such pronouns. Among the proposals, I am partial to “shehe,” “herhim,” and “herhis.” These are are derived by deletion of the front slash from the clunky but unmistakable-in-meaning, already-in use combination pronouns “she/he,” “her/him” and “her/his.” Use of these combinations in speech (say in large economics lectures around the world), with appropriate slurring, would be a big step toward their general acceptance. They have the advantage that, if their use in speech is questioned, one can always claim after the fact to have included a silent front slash, while the front slash remains absent in the presence of more accepting hearers.
In various categories below, I have tried to choose words from Word Fugitives that will be genuinely useful, rather than just entertaining. So, for example, I left off the list the entertaining game-theory word “penultimatum,” defined as “I’m going to tell you this only one more time after this …” (p. 163). Some of my judgments are different from Barbara’s; I have put page numbers in Word Fugitives if you want to see what she says.
- blunderang: a measure undertaken with high hopes to make things better which, in fact, makes things worse. (p.104)
- fixasco: a problem caused by a heavy-handed attempt to cure another problem. (p. 104)
- virtuecrat: (1) someone who thinks fostering virtue is an important aim for public policy OR (2) someone who thinks certain public policy views are especially virtuous. (p. 23)
- retrotort: a brilliant reply to an argument, realized after the fact. (p. 138)
- newbiquitous: adjective for something one hears about for the first time and then starts seeing everywhere. (p. 33)
- parentriloquism: saying something to one’s child and then realizing—often with shock—how much it sounds like one of one’s own parents. (p. 38)
- whomnesia: inability to remember a name one knew at one point. (p. 115)
- fussgadget: an object that works only if one employs a trick known to its owner or a frequent user. (p. 75)
- showflake: a person who chronically misses every appointment. (p. 70)
- azugo: an item to be carried upstairs or downstairs by the next person going that way. (An example of joint production, p. 84)
- nieblings: nieces and nephews. (p. 7)
- consuegra: the mother-in-law of one’s son or daughter (p. 169, from Spanish)
- consuegro: the father-in-law of one’s son or daughter (p. 169, from Spanish)
In the area of relationship terms, I don’t like the standard terminology of, say “second-cousin once-removed” for the child of one’s second cousin, or the second cousin of one’s parent. It seems to me that family relationship terminology ought to highlight the vertical dimension—which generation someone else is in relation to the reference person—and then how distant horizontally. The “removed” in “second-cousin once removed” comes late, and worse leaves ambiguous whether the generational difference is up or down. My proposed alternative is to call all non-ancestor blood relatives (and their spouses) who are of an earlier generation uncles and aunts for one generation up, great uncles and aunts for two generations up, with more greats for higher generations, and to call all non-descendant blood relatives who are of a later generation nephews and nieces for one generation down, great nephews and nieces for two generations down, and so on. The horizontal distance is indicated by first, second, third, etc. For example, for me, it would be as follows:
- second aunt: one of my parent’s first cousins (female)
- second uncle: one of my parent’s first cousins (male)
- third aunt: one of my parent’s second cousins (female)
- third uncle: one of my parent’s second cousins (male)
- second great aunt: one of my grandparent’s first cousins (female)
- second great uncle: one of my grandparent’s first cousins (male)
- second niece: one of my first cousin’s daughters.
- second nephew: one of my first cousin’s sons.
- third niece: one of my second cousin’s daughters.
- third nephew: one of my second cousin’s sons.
- second great niece: one of my first cousin’s granddaughters
- second great nephew: one of my first cousin’s grandsons
Most people need an explanation, or at least a reminder, even for the standard terminology. So even the first use of this new terminology is not much more burdensome than the standard “removed” terminology. I maintain that after a few times of use, the new terminology will be easier to remember. And to me, the new terminology has warmer connotations than any terminology involving the word “removed.”
On my word wish list: I would like to know of more words like “widget,” that sound as if they were specific examples of things in economics, but in fact serve mainly as placeholders.