November 5, 2019.   Et Tu, Gary Shteyngart?

Not long ago, in a complaint about the hellish proliferation of so-called spinner bags, I wrote of my disdain for use of the term “roller boards” in describing wheeled carry-ons. I’ve been hearing this sloppy mispronunciation more and more, usually from flight attendants: “Ladies and gentlemen, please place your roller boards into the bins handle-first.”

My what? We picture a wooden plank with wheels on it. What they’re attempting to say, of course, is roll-aboard. It’s a carry-on with wheels; you roll it aboard. This shouldn’t be difficult.

For a flight attendant to mess this up is one thing, but I’m shocked to discover one of my favorite novelists, Gary Shteyngart, has gotten into the act. In the opening pages of his latest book, Lake Success, the main character, Barry Cohen, is described hauling a “rollerboard” around the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Shteyngart has stylized it, turning it into a compound word, the casual-ness of which makes it even more annoying. He repeats it several times.

Few writers are funnier than Gary Shteyngart, and as one of his biggest fans, anger is about the last emotion I expect to come boiling up as I read. Yet every time that word appears I want to slam the binding against the hard edge of my desk. What the fuck, Gary? It’s roll-aboard!

Did his editors do this? Did he argue and lose? Or is there some irony or subtle meaning going on that I’m too tone-deaf to detect? No, I don’t think that’s it. Like everyone else he’s simply mis-hearing the term and not thinking about it. “Rollerboard,” meanwhile, has just enough of the right sound and meaning to be plausible, sort of (even if it’s completely stupid).

A part of me wants to believe that the author has done this by design, to annoy me. Allow me to explain…

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a funny but rather caustic piece by Shteyngart about a bad experience he’d had with American Airlines. Taking things much too seriously (imagine!), and probably desperate for something to write about, I authored a rebuttal that the good people at the Daily Beast were kind/bored/pitying enough to run. The rebuttal was a masterpiece of the kind of stick-up-his-butt humorlessness that only I could create. My conspiracy theory holds that Shteyngart remembered this, and “rollerboard” is his way of getting even.

Yeah, I know: like he’s ever heard of me, saw my spinner bag post, or would possibly give a shit enough to grammatically sabotage his own novel as part of some demented shout-out to a blogger.

But it’s fun to think about.

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