Recombobulation1We’re nearing the end of the year, which has me thinking about the annual Word of the Year vote at the American Dialect Society meeting in January. We’ll be in Minneapolis this year, and Grant Barrett (Vice President of Communications and Technology for ADS) is soliciting nominations for a list of possible contenders. I asked students last week if they had suggestions, and they came up immediately with twerk, turnt, and insta (as a noun and verb, < Instagram).

But I’m writing this post not to solicit nominations for 2013. Instead, I want to make a plea for a past word winner whose brilliance, I think, has not yet been fully recognized.

Each year we vote not only on the Word of the Year but also on, for example, the Most Useful Word of the Year, the Most Useless Word of the Year, and the Most Creative Word of the Year. For 2008, recombobulation area won the title of Most Creative Word of the Year.

If you haven’t been to Concourse C at the General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee in the past five years, you may not have encountered the original (and as far as I have heard only—but readers, please let me know if there are others) recombobulation area, designated as such by its own sign. It is set up just after the security check point, a place where potentially discombobulated passengers can recombobulate: put their belts and coats back on, put their laptops and toiletries away, reload all their miscellaneous objects into their pockets, etc.

I cannot help but use the verb now—usually to myself, in my head—every time I’m putting myself back together after security, no matter what airport I’m in. But here’s the thing: I don’t just recombobulate at airports.

I am willing to admit that most days I have to recombobulate several times a day. For example, after I teach, which often involves me spreading my stuff all over the podium and front desk, I have to pull it all back together in order to vacate the room. That is, I must recombobulate. After I’ve been in a nonstop string of meetings, it helps if I recombobulate before I sit down and try to organize my thoughts to write a blog post. After I’ve made a complicated recipe, involving many ingredients and a whole lot of pots, I (and my kitchen) benefit from some recombobulation before I launch into the recipe for the next dish. And that is just a taste of my quotidian recombobulation efforts.

At the beginning of every semester, I make a point to tell students about the verb recombobulate, emphasizing its potential usefulness in everyday speech. They appear to agree. I then usually ask for their help in spreading the word. And yet, a search of the Internet turns up very little outside scattered references to the airport in Milwaukee and to the ADS Word of the Year vote in January 2009.

As a linguist, I am well aware that conscious efforts to “make a word happen” are rarely successful. Yet I think (or is it that I hope?) recombobulate has all the ingredients for success. Let’s consider Allan Metcalf’s FUDGE factors (from his book Predicting New Words) for predicting the success of a word:

  • F(requency): OK, so here the word recombobulate doesn’t do so well (yet!). But keep reading. …
  • U(nobtrusiveness): I would argue recombobulate has the potential to sneak into the language relatively unnoticed, given its systematic relationship to discombobulate. Perform a little back-formation (to create combobulate) and then add a prefix (re-), and voilà!
  • D(iversity of users and meaning): Equally relevant to the young and old, multitaskers to multislackers (see the Most Creative Word of the Year for 1998)
  • G(enerating new forms): A noun, a verb—we’re in good shape here.
  • E(ndurance of the concept): What is the likelihood that we’re all going to become so combobulated in the near or distant future that this concept will not be relevant?

What part can you play in upping the numbers for Frequency? As you spread the holiday cheer this season, I hope you will also consider spreading the smile-inducing verb recombobulate—a small linguistic gift to folks who might find themselves in a recombobulating situation, be that in an airport or somewhere else.

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