Dion Black, 37 — a Washington lawyer when he’s not crafting gags for a ridiculously passion-inspiring Washington Post humor contest — fingered one of the labels and recalled the time the silly stickers yielded an epiphany: The week’s assignment had been to coin and define a word or term with a palindrome. He came up with “Nametag-Gateman,” whose meaning he recites by heart two years later: “The conference organizer who won’t let you enter until you’ve ruined your jacket with adhesive paper.”
Clever, but Black was still a Loser, by the merciless code of this society, because he did not win: He came in third. He was given the choice of receiving a coveted Style Invitational Loser T-shirt or a Loser Mug.
“We’ve had some spectacularly cuckoo prizes,” says Nan Reiner of Alexandria, 57, another lawyer at the brunch, wearing a decorative pin she fashioned out of four Loser Magnets. “There was the mink baculum. Do I have to translate?”
“The penis bone of a mink.”
It’s about the size of a sewing needle, and Reiner won her very own in November for coming in second with the suggestion of a question to which “mink baculum” could be the answer: “What does Donald Trump give his fired employees instead of a golden parachute?”
Black continues: “Nobody does this to get a penis bone or a T-shirt that doesn’t fit.”
“Speak for yourself,” says Stephen Dudzik, 56, of Olney, an engineer wearing a bright yellow Loser T-shirt.
Some are born Losers, some achieve Loserdom
No reasonable person would have predicted 20 years ago that a newspaper humor contest trafficking in quirky wit and questionable taste would spawn a durable community with its own folkways, lingo, rituals and traditions, independent of the newspaper itself.
The brunches, rotating monthly among Washington, Maryland and Virginia, are just a teeny taste of the communal life of a Loser. “The Invitational is a very odd way to build a corps of friends and associates, but that is what’s happened,” says Elden Carnahan, 60, a federal employee from Laurel, a founding pillar of the Loser community.
Since the beginning, 4,600 people have gotten “ink,” which is to say, they saw their names mentioned in print or online for at least one submission deemed worthy by the original contest judge, the Czar (columnist Gene Weingarten), or his successor, the Empress (editor Pat Myers). Of those, many dozens have built Loser culture. (Early on, they styled themselves the Not Ready for the Algonquin Roundtable Society — a reference to the New York literary snarkpit starring Dorothy Parker’s crowd.)
A pre-Internet newsletter called Depravda gave way to an e-mail user group called Losernet and a Facebook page, Style Invitational Devotees, with 495 members. Losers hail from all 50 states and 33 foreign countries. (The foreign count may be skewed by Losers who file even when they vacation abroad: “I remember the panic of ‘What if I can’t find an Internet cafe to send the stuff in?’ ” says Chris Doyle, 68, of Ponder, Tex., a retired chief actuary for the Department of Defense.)