I find this week’s episode of This American Life fascinating. Entitled “Frenemies” the show’s caption begins:

This week we bring you stories about friends. Or wait, enemies? How about both? Tales of estranged sisters, BFFs breaking up and making up and breaking up, and how reality stars walk the fine line between making friends and making a name for themselves.

As engaging as the listed elements of the show are, for me the most interesting section is a smaller transitional piece with Ira Glass and lexicographer Erin McKean. Glass relates the history of the use of the portmanteau “frenemies” and its emergence into popular culture. Before leaving the topic entirely for the next act of the show Glass and McKean digress to discuss other similarly blended words. During the interview McKean gives four examples. Some are well-known; some are more obtuse.

  • guesstimate : McKean attributes the creation of this word to 1936.
  • anecdotage : The essential meaning here being the arrival at that point in life when you tell the same anecdotes repeatedly.
  • linner : That meal you must have between lunch and dinner. Glass responds, “That just makes me feel mad at somebody.”
  • slanguage : McKean describes the allegedly clever introduction of this term into conversations with lexicographers, “Slang plus language.” Glass, “But you do not find that clever.”

McKean goes on to describe a phenomenon that particularly intrigued me: the lexical gap. She assigns it as a potential source for some of these new terms. While admitting that there are lots of words for things that are uncommon, there are holes in any given language. And when we come across a concept that is not adequately filled by a single term, lexicographers refer to that absence as a lexical gap. In English the most famous case of a lexical gap is the existence of the term for a child who has lost its parents: an orphan. But there is no single term for a parent who has lost a child. A lexical gap.

When I heard McKean name the term my mind immediately jumped to the warning plastered everywhere on the London Tube: Mind the Gap.

I don’t know why I thought of that.