By Jeff Duntemann



Some years back (in the early 80’s, I think) I got a late evening call from SF writer Nancy Kress. She was something close to frantic.

"Jeff! You gotta help me!"

"Anything, Nan." Far be it from me to leave a beautiful woman in a bad situation.

"Then quick: What do they call that tubey thing that pulls screen doors closed when you let go of them?"

Ulp. She could have asked me how to do I/O redirection under DOS. She could have asked me whether Millard Fillmore had ever been on a US postage stamp. She could have asked me the atomic weight of Ruthenium. But no: She asked me for the name of a Thing That Had No Name.

So tell me: What is the name of that long aluminum hydraulic gizmo that hisses coming and going and needs to be propped open with that little skewed iron washer that always lets go just when you’re heading out the door with the old dresser that must not be scratched? I doubt you’ll do any better than I did. Sheesh; I could go out in the garage and build one for you--but I can’t tell you what it’s called.

Nan and I finally decided that knowing precisely what it was called wasn’t germane to her story--a little item called "Out of All Them Bright Stars" that went on to win a Nebula award for her--so we did the best we could and called it a "door closer." That was its job, after all, scratched dressers notwithstanding.

The following weekend I went down to Chase Pitkin and prowled the aisles until I found a blister-packed replacement unit hanging on a peg. It was...drum roll, please...a door closer.

I was shattered. Surely it was a wheezyank or a tugtube or an Albemarle cylinder. Could there possibly be something that exists by the tens or even hundreds of millions around the country that has no name, and thus drives people to do the obvious and punt with so boring an appelation as...door closer?

Yes, there is. And by paying attention since then I’ve run into a few of the others.

One is a dog thing. Back when we lived in Rochester, New York I was sitting on the couch, watching Mr. Byte squirming around on his back on the living room floor, rubbing his nose on the carpet while making a don’t-bug-me-I’m-heavily-involved sort of noise halfway between a groan and a growl. It occurred to me that I had watched every other dog I had ever owned do exactly the same thing: Rebel, Yankee, Smoker, and now Mr. Byte. This was obviously Important Dog Behavior, at least as important as peeing on things when you’ve long since run out of pee. So what the hell was he doing? There was no word for it, so I made one up: He was schnauzing. From the German for "muzzle." What schnauzers do.

Fits, doesn’t it? Now, please use this word every chance you get so that I can be cited in the Oxford English Dictionary as the person who coined it. If I’m ever going to get my fifteen minutes of fame, that’s where I want it to end up.

Moving further out into the realm of abstraction, there is the problem that in English we have no single word for "it is to be hoped that..." Most people probably don’t lose a lot of sleep over this one, but it does bother me. I used to admire the French for their terseness, after Sister Agnes Eileen explained to us in third grade that the last Tuesday before Lent was called "Mardi Gras" in French. As she put it, "‘Mardi’ means ‘Tuesday,’ so ‘Mardi Gras’ means ‘the Tuesday on which meat may be eaten.’" Junior logician that I was, I unrolled the syllogism and assumed that "gras" in French meant "on which meat may be eaten." A dinner plate was thus an "assiette gras," whereas someone’s upper plate (the kind "with which meat may be eaten") was an "assiette xxx," where "xxx" was some other beautifully terse French coinage for "with which meat may be eaten" that I have sought for thirty-five years and not yet found. Don’t tell me that "gras" means "fat." Sister wouldn’t lie. Maybe you got the accent marks wrong.

So although I seek in vain, others in my condition have done the obvious thing and stolen another word that isn’t used nearly as often: hopefully. Now, this word really and legally means, "with hope in one’s heart," as in, "Expecting some word about her order, she rummaged hopefully through the day’s mail." That is, she rummaged through the mail, filled with a feeling of hope that PC Nirvana will finally either ship her damned mouse or send her a refund.

Desperate word hijackers have taped hopefully’s mouth shut to muffle its screams and begun using the word to mean "it is to be hoped that..." as in, "‘Hopefully, my mouse will show up tomorrow,’ she said, wiping the blood from her arrow keys." Complain though purists might, the crime’s been committed, and the Law of Conservation of Syllables has been satisfied. Besides, people rarely use the word "hopefully" to mean "with hope in their hearts" anymore, especially when they’re dealing with computer mail order companies.

Finally, there is what I can only assume is a Jeff thing, because I have never seen or heard anyone else encounter it. It’s a Jeff thing in part because I keep my money loose in my right pants pocket, whereas most people keep theirs in a wallet. When I was fourteen I lost my wallet, and it had the $10 bill in it I had received for Christmas from Aunk Kathleen. This cauterized me for all time on the issue of placing so vulnerable a substance as money in so loseable a container as a wallet, which hangs precariously off your butt in the embrace of a loose fabric attachment that is far wider (but never deeper) than it needs to be. (Remember, when I was fourteen, $10 was way more than it is today.)

The Jeff thing in question is what to call the bills that have been sitting in the bottom of your pocket for several weeks. Cash always begins its life in a nice tight roll, but as you peel off crisp 20’s and hand them to the guy at Taco Bell, he hands you a tatterdemalion wad of greasy ones and fives, which join their fellows in the bottom of your pocket, wrestling and twisting and doing everything but (sigh) reproducing.


Not long ago, I went too long without cashing a check, and finally had the occasion of pulling the very last bill out of the bottom of my pocket. It was a remarkably shaped thing indeed, a $10 bill that had spent time in the arms of the Muse, and emerged as something one might call "wealth art" with something approaching (but not achieving) a straight face. Hell, call it whatever you want to; I call it moneygami.

Everything should have a name. If you spot something without a name, give it one quickly, before somebody decides to call it a door closer.