The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s recombobulate

Q: Your posting on “discombobulate” reminds me of a sign at the Milwaukee airport. After undergoing the indignities of TSA screening, you enter the RECOMBOBULATION AREA, a place to sit down and put shoes, belt, etc., back on.

A: Yes, “recombobulate” fills a much needed gap! It implies putting yourself back together after being discombobulated. And what’s more discombobulating than going through airport screening?

We haven’t been through the Milwaukee airport since that sign was mounted, but we recall that it generated some news. Garrison Keillor, for instance, commented on it in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times a couple of years ago. He wrote:

“My heart was gladdened by an official-looking sign in the Milwaukee airport, just beyond the security checkpoint, hanging over where you put your shoes and coat back on and stuff your laptop back in the case: The sign said, ‘Recombobulation Area.’ The English language gains a new word. Recombobulate, America. Pull yourself together, tie your shoelaces, and if your pilot is wearing a button that says ‘To hell with the F.A.A.,’ wait for the next flight.”

(We’ve noticed images online of two different recombobulation signs at the Milwaukee airport, one with all the letters capitalized and one with just the first letter of each word capped.)

The airport put up its sign in 2008, but “recombobulate” and “recombobulation” were in the air (no pun intended) long before that. We’ve found examples going back to 1970, and our guess is that they weren’t the first.

Margaret Bennett used the verb in her book How To Ski Just a Little Bit (1970): “If you find this happening, put your weight on your outside ski and ride that until you’re recombobulated and back on course.”

And Amanda Cross (a k a Carolyn Heilbrun) used the noun in her mystery Poetic Justice (1970): “ ‘To return,’ Reed said, ‘to the conversation of last night, why has misrule and horseplay brought you to such a state of discombobulation? Or, since it has, may I offer my help in recombobulation?’ ”

Even if “recombobulation” isn’t all that new, we’re glad to know that the Transportation Security Administration people at General Mitchell International Airport have a sense of humor.

In case anyone is wondering, “discombobulate” isn’t a negative version of “combobulate,” as a reader of the blog has suggested. In our earlier posting, we note that “discombobulate” is a joke word formed in 19th-century America.

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