James J. Kilpatrick

David Savage, Supreme Court correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece the other day about a political redistricting case from Texas. He reported:

"Other states have signaled that if Texas' middecade shift is approved by the high court, they will do the same."

Middecade shift? What does Google say? As of March 2, the Big G had recorded 267 hits on "middecade." I Googled again on March 16. Unbelievable! There were now 545 hits. A word has been born -- or more precisely, born again. The unhyphenated noun may have originated with Rep. William S. Bromfield of Michigan in 1975. He introduced H.R. 1318, more or less authorizing a federal census every five years. The bill never made it even to a hearing in committee, far from a vote on the floor.

After 20 years of dormancy, "middecade" bobbed up in Radiology magazine in a 1997 survey. Two months ago the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press reported that a Michigan township "plans to conduct a middecade census at its own cost." In Washington, D.C., The Hill newspaper noted last month that "Republicans famously succeeded in a middecade redistricting scheme in Texas." Other recent citations come from the San Antonio Express-News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the good gray New York Times.

I record the arrival of "middecade" with envy. Fifty-odd years ago, to identify a monthly recurrence, I floated "mensiversary." It sank. Later I launched "lunaversary." It never edged away from the dock. Either one of these alternatives would have been better than the altogether abominable "six-month anniversary." Aaargh!

It's evidently time to ring up another coinage: "to suss out," a verb meaning "to examine so as to determine accuracy, quality or condition." Dear old Google cites to more than a million hits since the verb gained currency in England 70 years ago. Four of my six everyday dictionaries approve it. Encarta and American Heritage have yet to suss it.

What about "shambolic"? The Washington Post's Book World last August reviewed Bret Easton Ellis' new novel, the "ambitious, entertaining, shambolic 'Lunar Park.'" In London, the Daily Telegraph complained that the government's handling of some minor crisis "has been little short of shambolic." The Encarta dictionary defines "shambolic" as British slang for "poorly organized and in a messy or chaotic state." Oxford says that something is shambolic if it is "chaotic, disorderly, inept, unmanaged." For a simile, we might try "shambolic as a teenager's bedroom."

Readers regularly remark on additions to Bobtailed English. A bobtail is a coinage formed by sawing off a perfectly respectable noun or phrase, presumably in the interest of saving space. What is your take on these bobbed birds from The Washington Post?

  • From an account of a major highway accident: "Some motorists sat for hours as cleanup crews moved damaged vehicles and police investigated the fatal."

  • From an advertisement for a novel: "Pace, dialogue and scenes are cunningly shaped, and the police procedural skillfully dovetails with the romance."

  • From a review of the movie "Capote": "He ingratiates himself with Dewey, which gives him ... the cred to get inside the prison system."

    In copspeak, "fatal" has long been short for "fatal accident." The puffed-up "procedural," born of "procedure," dates from 1972. You will have guessed that "cred" is short for "credibility." It came along in 1981. Of the making of new words, said the Preacher, there shall be no end. Otherwise, how could adventurous writers write at all?


  • James J. Kilpatrick

    James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

    Be the first to read James Kilpatrick's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.