Daily Archives: January 21, 2012


It’s a typical pattern: in the characteristic tatterdemalion paraphernalia of liminal natterings that rattle on between email aliases in the category of business chatter, a simple task may disintegrate into a flurry of a million fluttering missives, frittering away details in trails to failure in alienating malaise, until, muttering scatalogically, you send the kit and caboodle skittering and scuttle the lot. We’ve all had such projects, I’m sure: not a big bulk of business brought forth in a ball; rather, little details passed back and forth one at a time until you lose track entirely of who said what when in response to what and what comes before what and obviates what and… At such times you would love to bare your sword and plunge it into the belly of one big fire-breathing dragon of a task, rather than darting your stiletto at ten tons of little lizards swarming you from all directions.

After a day of just this sort of thing, my colleague Heather Ebbs gave it a name (so much easier to pronounce a malediction on something when you can name it): scattermalia. She defines it thus: “odds and ends of queries or information scattered through several emails instead of being nicely cleaned up into one clear listing.” The sort of thing, I might amplify, that leaves you at last to say, “OK, so what has been decided? Where are we with this?”

It really is a 21st-century problem; emails can allow you to have multiple conversation threads at the same time with the same person. It’s as though the two of you are singing one of those opera quartets all by yourselves, with each line sung antiphonally. The cyber-world may allow people to accomplish things more quickly, but among the things that can be accomplished are making a mess and getting confused. We are the authors of our own befuddlement; Pygmalion may have made a statue and then fallen in love with it, but what we have animated can come to be more of a cross between a siren and a hydra, and we are chasing it in an echo chamber covered in mirrors.

But it’s a lovely fun little word, isn’t it, scattermalia? Scatter skitters and rattles on the tongue, while malia is the soft nasal and liquid other half. The rhythm is smooth and charging. In spelling, the i before the l has been dropped as unnecessary and by analogy with, for instance, animalia. The word has tastes of various other words, several of which decorated my first paragraph, above. It also has a strong taste of Saturnalia, which sets a solid, familiar pattern for the sound – but, oh, how much less fun scattermalia is than Saturnalia, though they both involve misrule.