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JACK SMITH

Dictionary Deficiencies : We Don't Have a Word, for Instance, for That Back-and-Forth Series of Missteps Two People Take When They Can't Get Out of Each Other's Way

September 27, 1987|JACK SMITH

THERE IS A word in English for almost everything: un , for example, which means "without equal," and which does not have degrees, like "less" or "more."

If the language doesn't have a word for an idea we wish to convey, we make one up. Like ritzy , which comes from the hotelkeeper Cesar Ritz and means "luxurious, fashionable, expensive."

But sometimes the language seems to fail us. Usually, though, when we can't think of a word to describe some experience or phenomenon, our memory is at fault, or our vocabulary--not the language.

Recently, a reader wrote that she couldn't think of a word to describe like experiences that followed one another, seeming more than coincidental. She would meet an old classmate at lunch, for example, and then in the next two or three days, improbably, she would meet two or three other old classmates.

Other readers supplied the word: synchronicity .

Now, reader John Degatina thinks he has discovered another absent word.

The other day, for the first time in years, he drove down Western Avenue from Sunset to Wilshire. The street had once been his favorite hunting ground for antiques and junk, and he was surprised to find that now almost all the signs he saw were in Korean.

"I experienced a new feeling. It's like the opposite of deja vu . Here I was on a familiar street, and suddenly I felt as if I'd never been there before. I wonder if you know a word for that kind of feeling."

I don't know the word, but I know the feeling. I have it every time I visit a certain neighborhood in Long Beach, and instead of finding the cottage in which I was born, I find the Queen Mary.

Betty Metzler of Pacific Palisades describes an experience that all of us have had and wonders if there's a word for it .

"There must be a name for it, that tactic one sometimes takes when meeting another face to face in a doorway or hall. Each sidesteps to allow the other free passage, only to meet head on again, and again, et cetera ."

We are all familiar with this little contretemps . Two people, usually strangers, come face to face. One feints to his left. The other feints to his right. The impasse is compounded. Then the first person feints to his right. His--what would you call him? opponent, adversary, opposite?--feints to his left. Double impasse. Their eyes meet in embarrassment. They both say, "Pardon me." Once again they move in identical directions. Finally both break out laughing. Sometimes they get married, at least in the movies. It's called a cute meet.

For lack of a better word, Mrs. Metzler says, she calls this experience "doing the dipsy-doodle."

That's graphic enough, but dipsy-doodle is the name of a popular dance of the what? 1930s?

Surely, that little shuffle we do when we try to avoid bumping into someone deserves a word of its own.

Mrs. Metzler points out that what she calls the dipsy-doodle can also be done by mail.

"I asked a friend for a record, which she sent me, and I responded with a thank-you and a check. Simultaneously she had written to say she wanted the record to be a gift. Our letters passed in the air, and I wrote asking her to donate the check to her church if she wouldn't accept it for herself. But she had already written and returned my check. At this point I tore up the check and am waiting to see if the chain stops here."

What is needed in that sort of situation is the gift of telepathy.

Tom Gilsenan of the publication Palo Altan thinks he has coined a word for another experience that all of us have had--at least all of us who live intimately with another person.

"I'm sure you've seen this many times," he says. "One person wants to talk sports--the other theater. Or one wants to discuss 'the meaning of life,' while the other wants to talk about the weather."

We have had many such conversations at our house. My wife will say, "They say the ballet at the Music Center is really elegant." And I will say, "I don't think the Raiders are going to make it this year."

The British are especially adept at this sort of talk, if we can believe their movies:

Lady Chalmers: "Heathcliff, I want a divorce."

Lord Chalmers: "I believe the hydrangeas look a bit despondent this year, my dear."

Lady Chalmers: "I've spoken to my solicitor."

Lord Chalmers: "I must speak to the gardener."

And so on.

Gilsenan points out that such a conversation cannot accurately be called a "dialogue," since neither person is responding to the other. It is a pair of monologues, but that phrase is unsatisfactory.

"Around here," he says, "we refer to such conversations as 'duologues.' A newspaper colleague, Kate Wakerly, and I first stumbled onto this idea about 10 years ago. We have been refining it since then. For example, when such conversations involve more than two people, we call them multilogues."

Duologues and multilogues are very good words indeed for the phenomenon that Gilsenan describes.

He goes too far, though, I think, when he suggests that conversations among relatives gathered at Christmas are Yulelogues.

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