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You Can`t Make This Stuff Up
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December 28, 2010, 04:17 PM
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For years, the Atlantic Monthly would run a back page column, "Word Fugitives," that solicited readers to invent clever terms for common phenomena for which there ought to be a word. And each month, brilliant suggestions would pour in and columnist Barbara Wallraff would then pick one as the best of the best. And then ... nothing would ever happen. As far as I could tell, none of these useful and self-explanatory terms would ever enter common use.

Similarly, in 2003, while reviewing a Matrix sequel, I coined the term frauteur to refer to one of a pair of brothers who make films together, fraternal auteurs such as the Coens, Farrellys, Wachowskis, Wayans, and on and on.

It`s a genuine phenomenon of some interest that deserves explication: we need a frauteur theory, if you will. The emergence of frauteurs appears to have slowed down a little in recent years, probably because of the decline in the number of pairs of brothers due to the decline in family sizes after the Baby Boom, but 2010 did see the emergence of the Duplass brothers with Cyrus, starring John C. O`Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Maria Tomei. In contrast, I`ve never heard of a sisterly equivalent or a mixed sex pair of siblings who make movies together as a team, although I may be missing somebody.

With the Coen Brothers in the news for True Grit, I checked Google to see how far my convenient coinage had spread over the last seven years.

As you might guess, it hasn`t spread at all. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

In contrast, the wholly non-self-explanatory phrase "jump the shark" shows up on 376,000 webpages. That phrase requires the recounting of an incredibly boring backstory about some television episode, which suggests that the Atlantic got it all backward by looking for clever terms. The stupider and more abstruse the etymology, the more likely chance it has to flourish.

That seems to be true not just with neologisms. Etymology is perhaps the most intellectually frustrating field of study because, as a general rule, all clever theories about the origin of any word are wrong. The real explanation is always something boring and senseless, like "from a West Frisian word for turnip greens."

By the way, that reminds me of a question: how many well-known brother-sister partnerships are there outside of male-female entertainment fields such as singing (Donny & Marie Osmond), dancing (Fred & Adele Astaire), and figure skating (various)?

For example, the Versace designing family has had two flamboyant celebrities, the late Gianni and his sister Donatella, but I`m drawing a blank on other well-known brother-sister partnerships. I`m sure there are other ones, but I just can`t think of any more.