Yes, there's a word for it

A look at some Web resources for filling in lexical gaps.

Surely one of the great pleasures of language is finding a new word or phrase that perfectly fits a concept you already have in mind. Sometimes the concept is in the back of your mind, but when you see it, you recognize it: "Aha, that's it!"

So it was the other day when I ran across desire line. It's a planner's term, and my source defines it thus:

"An informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route."

Surely one of the great pleasures of the Web is all the resources it makes available to find treasures like these. My source for desire line is Word Spy, a website devoted to what its proprietor, technical writer Paul McFedries, calls "lexpionage," or lexical espionage – the sleuthing of new words and phrases.

He traces desire line back to an article in Technology Review, an MIT publication, in August 1987: "Study participants also drew charts of pedestrian traffic to take note of what are delightfully termed 'desire lines' – paths actually made by walkers as opposed to those created on the drawing board."

Some other phrases for which I'm indebted to Word Spy: tattoo regret (any explanation needed?) and car-panning: panhandling among cars stopped at a red light. It's a recent term, evidently – the three citations he lists all come from publications in Toronto over the past year and a half.

I'd never seen it before I saw it on the Word Spy website. But in a nanosecond I can tell you where in Boston I'm likeliest to encounter stoplight solicitors. Optimal conditions for car-panning (from the panner's perspective, if not the pannee's) seem to be the right combination of traffic flow and speed, pedestrian access, and traffic-signal timing.

Another just-right phrase I'm glad to have learned is shoulder surfing, which Urban Dictionary defines as "chatting it up, but always scoping someone better to talk with." Anyone who's ever noticed an interlocutor's gaze drifting over his or her shoulder at a large gathering or in a public place – and isn't that all of us? – will understand this one.

Word Spy has an RSS feed; Urban Dictionary has a Word of the Day service – with some of the words more suitable to polite company than others, I have to note.

A number of sources provide a "word of the day" feature –, Merriam-Webster, The New York Times, and is another source; many of its words matter for the sheer intellectual pleasure of knowing. Other WOTD services have a more utilitarian bent: words you need for the SAT, to get ahead in the world, or to sound learned at the water cooler.

The oddest WOTD I have run across is the Oxford English Dictionary's, which is delivered to me every time I start to search. "Random" does not begin to describe the daily selection of words. It makes me think of an elderly auntie who, faced with unexpected young visitors, races up into her attic to retrieve some wildly inappropriate item as a plaything for them.

Of course, sometimes such a treasure from the attic has changed a young life. And somehow I have never gotten around to making the technical adjustment that would keep these odd words from popping up on my screen, even though some of them go back to the Hundred Years' War – or before.

WordThink is at the other end of the spectrum: all everyday practicality. As its website says: "While there are many dictionary sites that provide a 'Word of The Day' listing, too often they include obscure words that would never be used in a typical conversation or letter.

"When Merriam-Webster's 'Word of The Day' was eleemosynary (adj. relating to, or supported by charity) – we said 'enough is enough' and created WordThink."

I hope they don't find out about Oxford's WOTD.

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