I just flew back from a conference in Milwaukee and came across this sign in Mitchell airport, just beyond the TSA security zone.  The “Recombobulation Area” has chairs and such where you can sit and put everything back into the order you originally had it before you went through security.

As I see from a post this April by Fedblog on govexec.comFor several years now the Milwaukee County airport has livened up its ambience with signs over three waiting areas reading, nonsensically, “Recombobulation Area.”  It is, of course, not nonsensical at all, since everybody knows precisely what the sign means.  To recombobulate is an instance of what etymologists call a back-formation, a neologism logically derived from a previously existing word.  There are serious instances of this: e.g., the singular pea from the previously existing pease, unit from unity, burgle from burglar. Negative back-formation is usually humorous: e.g., couth from uncouth, shevelled from dishevelled, ruthful from ruthless.  To recombobulate is the opposite of discombobulate, clearly enough.  It’s really quite sensical.

What the Fedblogger is trying to say above is that the word recombobulation is silly, which undoubtedly it is. Even so, its root-word discombobulate is venerable in its silliness, having been part of the American slang lexicon for a long time.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dates to the 1830s, and is “probably [a] jocular alteration of discompose or discomfit.”  It appears to have, at least now and again, slipped into serious usage, as a synonym for upset or disturb, but at least to my ear, discombobulate and recombobulate still retain an informal sound, the sort of thing you might say when you’re too flustered to think of a non-slang equivalent.  When, in other words, you’re discombobulated.

So, there’s something cheerful about a sign so overtly silly in so overtly serious a place as airports now are, and I am not the first to be ticked by it. As Garrison Keillor wrote in the New York TimesMy 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. 

But, amusing as the “Recombulation Area” is, I may not be quite as sanguine as Keillor about it.  When an inquiry was made to the federal agency about the sign, Fedblog notes, a TSA spokeswoman replied, TSA takes the job of protecting travelers very seriously, but we also try to make the process as stress-free as possible. We get a lot of positive comments about the airport’s sign, and it’s nice to share a laugh or a smile with passengers when they see it.

Yes, it’s nice to share a laugh, and you have to be a little bit of a jerk not to be amused by it, admittedly.  But I guess I don’t really see the Recombobulation Area as an indication of a return to order, but a different sort of sign of the times.  To go through TSA screening–to be required to remove your shoes and jacket, to submit to back-scanning X-rays, to have your wallet and ID separated from you even briefly–is a lot more than just to be discombobulated.  I appreciate the good folks at MKE trying to cheer us all up a little, but it’s hard not to remember at that moment, when you’re re-adjusting the belt that a government official has forced you to remove, that your fundamental Fourth Amendment rights have been a little abused, which is nothing to be amused about.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Language & Etymology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Recombobulation?

  1. David Wharton says:

    If I may adapt a favorite back-formation from P.G. Wodehouse, I can see that,you, if not actually disgruntled by the sign, are far from being gruntled.

  2. lunatas says:

    Truly the worst!

  3. lunatas says:

    And yet seriously, I always read and enjoy your posts. This is what blogging should be about. Kudos.

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