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Realm of the Coined : Time to Throw Another Word on the Bonfire and See If Its Light Survives

I HAVE RECEIVED the following letter:

Dear Mr. Smith:

My name is Jay McCusker. I am 8 years old. I was driving with my grandparents. My grandfather was talking about accidents and I said, “Some accidents should be called purposedents.” My grandfather said you liked words and I hope you like mine. --Jay McCusker I think of Jay as a small boy carrying a light down a tunnel with a bonfire at the end. Each of the tens of thousands of words in our language was thought up, or first used, by one person--sometimes by accident, sometimes by purposedent. Thousands of lights are thrown into the bonfire, only to go out. Thousands more last, adding to the general luminosity.

Over the years, several other readers have written to tell me of coined words. Several have suggested words to replace the generic his or him and avoid the awkward his or her and the abominable his/her . I say none of them will survive.

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You will find that almost every American--from the President to the plumber--uses the plural their with the singular noun or pronoun. (“Everyone should watch their language.”)

Recently, Bill Wilkinson of Calabasas suggested the word mobilingua as a noun for the conversational phenomenon that occurs when one person is speaking and the other suddenly leaves the room. Several other readers have written to say that they have had this experience.

Some time ago Betty Metzler asked if there was a word for the little dance people do when they meet on the sidewalk or any other passageway, one dodging first to the right, then to the left, while the other person does the opposite, and so on, until they both come finally to a halt and break out in embarrassed laughter. Metzler called it “the dipsy-doodle.” But Tom Wagner, then a UC Berkeley undergraduate, suggested an acronym--SPLAF--for “Simultaneous Pedestrian Lateral Avoidance Failure.” Could be.

Sometimes the word we seek already exists. When John Degatina needed a word for the opposite of deja vu , meaning “seen before,” several readers noted that it was jamais vu , meaning “never seen.”

In its February issue, Harper’s magazine published a glossary of needed words coined by various writers. Some may be useful; some may survive. My guess is that most will not.

My wife might well apply tripidation (trepidation plus trip) to me. Harper’s says it means travel anxiety, as in, “He had such a bad case of tripidation that he reached the station three hours before departure time.” I am so vulnerable to tripidation that when my wife and I are invited to dinner, we have to park in front of the house 20 minutes before we are fashionably late enough to ring the doorbell.

I am also subject to vacanoia (vacation plus paranoia)--"the mental state created when one is in one’s vehicle headed for vacation and someone else in the car asks whether anyone turned off the stove or oven. ‘I’m overwhelmed with vacanoia, Marge. I’m going to have to go back and check.’ ”

Another novelty listed is hindser (hindsight plus answer), meaning “the appropriate response or rejoinder, witty or argumentative, that comes too late; the precise phrase one should have used but did not under stress.”

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But there is already a phrase serving precisely that purpose: l’esprit de l’escalier , meaning the thought one has on the stairway, after one has left the drawing room. It has the added panache of being French.

Facho (female plus macho), describing a woman of compulsive vigor and physical daring, and shero (she plus hero), meaning a valiant woman, are simple and apt enough to become successful, but I doubt that they will. Women will not care to be defined as slightly altered males.

Curiously, one of the neologisms listed in Harper’s is willie pep (named after the former professional boxer of that name.) It is defined as “the act of two people attempting to go in opposite directions who wind up blocking each other’s path by spontaneously moving back and forth rapidly, but always remaining directly in front of the other person.” Sounds like the old dipsy-doodle, or SPLAF.

Meanwhile, let me update my watch on POSSLQ, an acronym derived from a class of person described in the 1980 census: Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters. When I first heard it I thought it had promise. I think it has a chance to survive as long as persons of opposite sex continue to share living quarters, and that’s not out of style yet.

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But all these coinages suggest to me that new words are less often the result of accident than of purposedent.

Jay, your word might make it.


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