Word watch

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Here are a few of the words being tracked by the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary, published by Houghton Mifflin. A new word that exhibits sustained use may eventually make its way into the dictionary. The information below represents the first stage of research, not the final product.

foot tennis noun, a game played on a doubles tennis court by teams of three or four people who use their feet, knees, heads, and shoulders to bat a slightly deflated volleyball back and forth across the net until one team scores 21, to win: “It may not yet be as popular as, say, arena football, but … you can bankon it: foot tennis is coming to your neighborhood” (New York Times).


BACKGROUND: Foot tennis, similar to four-person volleyball and scored in a manner similar to Ping-Pong, appears to have originated in Eastern Europe, where it is now extremely popular. The game is already played professionally in Hungary and informally in other countries, including the United States. Most of the players are soccer players or other athletes who wish to stay in prime physical condition. Tony Veee, a foot tennis player, says, “If you have a lot of tension, this game will get rid of it” (Los Angeles Times).

land yacht noun, slang, a large, elaborate automobile, typically one manufactured in the 1960s or 1970s. Also called greaser yacht. “The ride is padded, although not quite as plush as the billowing land yachts of earlier decades” (Business Week). “The sound of the enormous old car door opening and the sight of this little figure getting out were depressing. The judge … comes to work in a greaser yacht practically ten years old” (Tom Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987)

BACKGROUND: The term land yacht goes back as far as 1967, but then it referred to a three-wheeled vehicle having a mast and small sails, used to race with the wind on beaches and deserts. Our earliest citation for the motor-vehicle usage is a New York Times article from 1982, in which the writer describes such a “smooth-riding, chrome-bedecked” car as “part of the American birthright.” Land yacht is also used to refer to a mobile home, as in this citation from a 1983 issue of Machine Design: “These 20 to 35 ft. land yachts are mostly self-contained–with an independent power source and water-sewerage holding tanks.” The word land is an element of many other compounds classed as slang: for example, land crab (a landlubber), land-pirate (a highwayman), and land-swab (an incompetent seaman).

mutual child noun, the offspring of a couple one or both of whom have been previously married and have other children from the former marriage or marriages: “Parents planning the birth of a mutual child.., ideally would have

been married for at least five years, so stepparent and stepchildren would have worked out their relationships” (Los Angeles Times). BACKGROUND: Mutual child, which has been used by Anne C. Bernstein, a professor of psychology at The Wright Institute, in Berkeley, California, and the author of Yours, Mine and Ours (1989), joins other relatively new terms, including significant other, that denote participants in modern relationships. Another term used by Bernstein is emotional divorce, referring to a complete emotional break with a former spouse: “If an emotional divorce has not occurred, the children of the marriage can be caught up in conflict between their own parents, and that can make it much harder for them to accept the child of the remarriage.”

paintball noun, a strategy survival game, based on Capture the Flag, played on indoor or outdoor courses by teams armed with air guns that shoot pellets of water-soluble dye. Also called splatball. “Paintball is … similar to the popular laser tag that lured even professional men and women out of their offices in recent years” (Indianapolis Business Journal).


BACKGROUND: Attired in black SWAT suits or fatigues, protective helmets, and goggles, close to three million Americans have played paint-ballat least once. Also referred to as the Survival Game, the War Game, the Adventure Game, the Ultimate Game, Pursuit, Skirmish, and Strategy, paintball was created in 1981 by Charles “Pumping Iron” Gaines and two of his friends. The National Survival Game, Inc., encompasses a network of autonomous dealers around the world. Paintball is also played on countless unaligned courses, especially in southern California, where as many as 50,000 people participate every week. According to the rules, a player who is hit with paint is “dead.” That player must leave the course until the next game. (A game typically lasts an hour.) Points are scored for every “kilt.” If no one captures the flag (or some other trophy), the game can still be won on points. Dedicated players of paintball are known as splat-masters. In a 1987 article about the game in Whole Earth Review, Rick Fields posited “a world in which the indirect ‘ritual’ of war games–with paintballs or laser guns or flour pellets or bamboo swords, for that matter–[is] employed in place of the unspeakable weapons we pay our best scientists to produce.”

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