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Words at Play

Trending: Election 2016

Tracing the presidential election through the words Americans looked up most

Here at Merriam-Webster, we keep track of how often various words in our online dictionary get looked up. Some words are always popular—love, for example, is always a top lookup, for reasons that are understandable if not logical, and a few of the words in our daily list of top lookups have been there for months. At other times, though, a word's definition will undergo a sudden, sharp spike in popularity as a result of something in the zeitgeist, such as a shared experience or event. These are the words that have trended during the election so far.

Definition: Worthless nonsense
When it trended: March 3rd, 2016

Lookups for trumpery have been spiking periodically since the end of 2015, as a result of the burgeoning political fortunes of Donald Trump. Recently, people have begun posting trumpery definitions to various social media sites. This fairly obscure word has a decidedly negative set of meanings which have delighted the real estate mogul’s detractors.

Samuel Johnson, in his great dictionary of 1755, assigned three senses to trumpery, none of which were terribly appealing:

(1) Something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems
(2) Falsehood, empty talk
(3) Something of no value; trifles

Earlier in the 18th century, Nathan Bailey gave a slightly more concise definition in his Dictionarium Bratannicum: “Trash, sorry, pitiful, paultry Stuff.”

Trumpery has been in use in English since the late 15th century, and has been used, at one time or another, to refer to weeds, people (especially women of doubtful character), religious matters (especially those that are superstitious in nature), and generally worthless things in a broad sense.

While those opposed to Donald Trump may quote Samuel Johnson’s secondary definition of trumpery ("something of less value than it seems"), those in favor of him have pointed out that the word trump itself carries such favorable meanings as "a dependable and exemplary person" and "a decisive overriding factor or final resource."

Definition: To use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone
When it trended: April 14, 2016

At the Democratic debate, in an energetic exchange on the minimum wage during which both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders raised their voices, Sanders wrapped up his argument by saying: “I think we need to be clear and not equivocate: $15 in all fifty states as soon as possible.” In the heat of the moment and in the context of heated rhetoric, his pronunciation of equivocate was slightly garbled.

Equivocate means “to use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone.”

The word​ comes from the Late Latin word ​aequivocus​, which means "to call by the same name." It has been used as a verb in English since 1590, in the sense of "to use equivocal language especially with intent to deceive."  

A few decades after this initial appearance the word took on an additional sense, presumably the one that was intended by Senator Sanders. There have been a few others senses of ​equivocate​, most of which are now quite obscure (such as when Randle Cotgrave used it in his 1611 French/English dictionary to mean "having the same sound as another word."

In other words, to equivocate is to engage in a highly specific type of lying.

Definition: Opposed to someone or something in a very angry or determined way that cannot be changed
When it trended: April 14, 2016

In response to Bernie Sanders's statement that the recent Paris climate change agreement was not a concrete accomplishment—“We have to get beyond paper right now”—Hillary Clinton argued that the agreement creates

...the framework to actually take the action that would have only come about because under the Obama administration in the face of implacable hostility from the Republicans in Congress President Obama moved forward on gas mileage, he moved forward on the clean power plant.

Implacable means “opposed to someone or something in a very angry or determined way that cannot be changed.”

Implacable comes to English from the French word of the same spelling; the French took it from the Latin implacabilis ("unappeasable, irreconcilable"). It shares its roots with placate, and has been in our language since the 15th century.

Implacable may also be used in reference to something that is inexorable, as when Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his novel The Defense, "By an implacable repetition of moves it was leading once more to that same passion which would destroy the dream of life." 

The "angry opposition" sense of the word is perhaps more common today.

Definition: Based on probability or presumption
When it trended: May 4th and June 7th, 2016

Lookups for presumptive spiked 504% on May 4th, following a decisive victory by Donald Trump in the Indiana primary the day prior.

Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee following a decisive victory in the Indiana primary and the decision by Ted Cruz to drop out of the race.
—CNN Politics, 4 May, 2016

Billionaire Donald Trump assumed the mantle of presumptive Republican presidential nominee on Wednesday with a mixed message on party unity and a clearer one for his next likely target, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
—Reuters, 4 May, 2016

presumtive typo

(the above tweet was later deleted.)

Presumptive is not a particularly recent addition to the English language; it has been in consistent use since the 15th century. The word comes from the Latin praesumptus (which is the past participle of praesumere, "to anticipate, suppose, take in advance"), and the earliest recorded sense in which it was used is one that still has considerable currency today: "based on probability or presumption."

The word spiked again on June 7th, this time in reference to Hillary Clinton.

Definition: Marked by or given to offhand and often disdainful dismissal of important matters
When it trended: May 26th, 2016

Cavalier spiked in lookups on May 26th, following Barack Obama's statement that leaders of other countries were concerned by Donald Trump.

“They are not sure how seriously to take some of his pronouncements but they’re rattled by him, and for good reason,” Obama said. “A lot of the proposals that he has made display either ignorance of world affairs or a cavalier attitude or an interest in getting tweets and headlines instead of actually thinking through what it is required to keep America safe.”
Christi Parsons, The Los Angeles Times, 26 May 2016

Cavalier can function as a verb, adjective, or noun in English (the latter two parts of speech are the more common ones), and has been in regular use since the 16th century. The earliest sense in which the noun was used, according to our records, was to refer to a raised fortified structure. It also has had the meaning of “a gentleman trained in arms” since at least the end of the 16th century.

Although the first sense in which cavalier was used as an adjective is "debonair” it also quickly took on connotations of insouciance, the sense in which President Obama appears to have used it recently. In other words, he was suggesting that Trump's proposals were "marked by or given to offhand and often disdainful dismissal of important matters."

Definition: A leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power
When it trended: May 31, 2016

Lookups for demagogue increased 9000% over the hourly average after Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists in the world, stated that he was unable to explain Trump's success in the Republican presidential primaries:

I can’t. He is a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Demagogue means “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” It comes from the Greek word meaning “popular leader” and originally had the positive connotation of “a leader in ancient times who championed the cause of the common people.” The first known use of the word in English comes from the introduction to Thomas Hobbes's 1629 translation of a text by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides:

It need not be doubted, but from such a Master, Thucydides was sufficiently qualified, to have become a great Demagogue, and of great authority with the People.

Hobbes wrote Leviathan a few years later in 1651, in which he argued for the merits of absolute political power held by a monarch and against the separation of church and state. Demagogue took on the negative meaning of “a leader who seeks to gain power by exploiting popular prejudices and making false or extravagant claims and promises” very soon after it was introduced in English in the mid-1600s.

This isn’t the first time that the word demagogue has been used in reference to Donald Trump. Back in July, both Lindsay Graham and Rick Perry used the related word demagoguery to refer to Trump’s ideas.

Definition: A disturbance or fuss
When it trended: June 7th, 2016

Lookups for kerfuffle increased 500% on June 7th, 2016. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used the word in reference to the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the Trump University case.

Christie insisted that Trump's claim that Curiel's "Mexican heritage" presented "an absolute conflict" to his ability to perform his job was not racism.

"The fact is, the media loves controversy, the media loves to pay attention to this stuff and to work it up," Christie said. "I understand why. I’ve lived with that over the course of time, too, but the fact of the matter is people who are going to vote today in New Jersey and people who are going to vote in November are not going to make their decisions based on this kerfuffle."
—Nick Gass, Politico.com, 7 July 2016

Although kerfuffle gained prominence in the mid-20th century, it was in occasional use earlier. At the very beginning of the 20th century the word was used on a handful of occasions by Alice Perrin, a British novelist. Her 1908 novel The Stronger Claim used a common variant of the word, kafuffle: “Suppose we had been two young bachelors from the regiment”—he winked at Selma—“and you had come home too soon! My!—what a kafuffle there would have been!”

The word means "a disturbance or fuss." It is more commonly encountered in British English than American, and is formed in part from the older Scottish word fuffle, meaning “to dishevel."

Definition: An unfair system or set of attitudes that prevents some people (such as women or people of a certain race) from getting the most powerful jobs
When it trended: June 7th and 8th, 2016

Glass ceiling spiked on June 7th and 8th after primary victories in several states made Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

Eight years ago to the day, in a concession speech following her loss to President Obama in the 2008 primaries, Clinton said:

Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.

Glass ceiling means “an unfair system or set of attitudes that prevents some people (such as women or people of a certain race) from getting the most powerful jobs.” It is a very recent idiom in English, dating back only to 1984. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term had to do with advancement in the corporate management structure:

Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They're in the top of middle management and they're stopping and getting stuck.
Adweek, 15 March 1984

By coincidence, 1984 was the year that Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Walter Mondale.

Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Didier/Released

Definition: A believer in the rights, wisdom, and virtues of the common people
When it trended: June 29th, 2016

Speaking at a conference in Canada, President Obama responded to the characterization of some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric as “populist.” Without naming the Republican candidate, Obama prefaced his remarks by saying “maybe somebody can pull up in a dictionary quickly, the phrase populism.”

He then went on to mention his desire to help children, the poor, and workers have equal and fair access to opportunities, saying: “I suppose that makes me a populist,” before taking aim at Donald Trump:

Somebody else who has never shown any regard for workers, has never fought on behalf of social justice issues…in fact have worked against economic opportunity for workers and ordinary people, they don't suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That’s not the measure of populism.

Populist means “a believer in the rights, wisdom, and virtues of the common people.” Appropriately enough in this context, the term was coined as the name of a political party in the United States. Known as the People’s Party or the Populist Party, it existed from 1892 until 1896, when it merged with the Democratic Party. Populist comes from the Latin word for “the people,” populus.

Not only did President Obama mention “a dictionary,” his explanation of the definition of a populist helps explain why so many people looked this word up online.

So I would just advise everybody to be careful about suddenly attributing to whoever pops up at a time of economic anxiety the label that they’re populist.

The initial data for this spike of populist also showed spikes in populous and populace, etymologically related words that have similar pronunciations, indicating that many people heard or saw the president’s remarks before reading news accounts.

Definition: To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
When it trended: July 19th, 2016

Melania Trump’s speech was supposed to be the highlight of the Republican National Convention, and it almost certainly will be considered the most memorable speech of the night—because it was clear that her speechwriters remembered entire passages from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The similarities are striking and often word-for-word; a video juxtaposing the two speeches shows that they seem to echo each other. Plagiarize and plagiarism both spiked in online dictionary lookups.

Plagiarize means “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own” or “to use (another's production) without crediting the source.” It is a word that frequently spikes in September, when school and college orientations are taking place, because they usually include warnings about plagiarism policies.

The verb plagiarize comes from the slightly older noun plagiary, which could refer to either a plagiarist or a kidnapper. The “kidnapper” sense of this word hearkens back to the Latin word plagiarius, a word for someone who would kidnap children or freemen and sell them into slavery. By the first century CE the word was being used in Latin to refer to a person who stole the words, rather than the children, of another.

Definition: The feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else's feelings
When it trended: July 20th, 2016

Look-ups for empathy spiked sharply after Paul Ryan used the word in a speech on the second evening of the Republican National Convention. “Real social progress is always a widening of the circle of concern and protection," Ryan stated. "It's respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference."

The word is somewhat more recent than many similar words, having entered the English language in the middle of the 19th century; sympathy, by comparison, has been in use since the middle of the 16th century. The earliest sense of the word had to do with projecting a state of mind onto an object and ascribing to that object one’s own feelings or state of mind.

It was not until the 20th century the word entered the realm of psychology and came to assume the meaning that we commonly ascribe to it today: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Definition: "Very obedient and trying too hard to please someone" and "To end or cancel (something) in a formal and official way" (for servile and abrogate, respectively)
When they trended: July 21st, 2016

Servile saw an increase in look-ups after Ted Cruz's comments to reporters who asked about his dramatic non-endorsement of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.

Asked about the pledge Cruz signed to back the Republican nominee, he said it was no longer operative. "The day that became abrogated was the day that became personal," Cruz said. "I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father. And that pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you [attack] Heidi I'm going to nonetheless go like a servile puppy dog" and stick to the pledge anyway.
—Katie Glueck, Politico.com, 21 July 2016

The word abrogate, which means "to annul" or "to treat as nonexistent," spiked as well. The word first appeared in English as a verb in the 16th century.

Servile can be traced back to the Latin word servus, meaning “slave,” as may be seen by the earliest use of the word in English, which had the meaning of “befitting a slave or servant.” The word has taken on a number of other senses over the years, including “held in servitude,” “slavishly imitative of a model, especially in literature or art,” and, in Roman Catholicism, “of, relating to, or constituting physical as distinguished from manual labor.” Based on the context it would appear likely that Cruz intended servile to convey a different meaning, such as “lacking spirit or independence” or “engaged in the work of a servant or menial.”

Definition: An imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives
When it trended: July 21st and 22nd, 2016

Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP Convention caused lookups for dystopia and dystopian to increase by 2000%. The speech painted a bleak picture of the state of the nation and the world and lacked the optimism that conventional wisdom associates with successful presidential campaigns.

In his recap of the speech, Seth Myers summarized: “We are currently living in a dystopian nightmare.”

Dystopia means "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives." The word itself is based on utopia, a word that in Greek literally translates as "no place"—since its perfection is unattainable. Dystopia translates literally as "bad place."

Here’s an example of its use in a typical commentary:

For four nights, convention speakers portrayed the U.S. as a grim dystopia: impoverished and ridden with violence.
—Melanie Mason, The Washington Post, 22 July 2016

The adjective dystopian was used even more frequently:

Mr. Trump gave a grim, angry acceptance speech to close a grim, angry convention, casting America as a dystopian hellscape and himself as the only leader capable of saving it from murder, terrorism, financial ruin, and an uncontrolled wave of immigrants.
—James Poniewozik, The New York Times, 22 July 2016

He stoked fears by painting a dark, dystopian image of a country overwhelmed by violent crime and under siege by illegal immigrants.
—Editorial Board, Bloomberg.com, 21 July 2016

The term dystopic is beginning to be used as a synonym of dystopian, but until recently had been used only in medical contexts to mean “relating to the malposition of an anatomical part.” Our citation files indicate that dystopic is being used increasingly in this way.

Definition: To call a meeting to order through use of a gavel
When it trended: July 25, 2016

The Democratic National Convention was to be convened by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, as is customary, but in the wake of leaked emails showing DNC bias against Bernie Sanders, she announced that she would not gavel in the convention—leading to a spike in lookups from people who may have been confused to see gavel used as a verb.

Wasserman Schultz was originally supposed to gavel in the convention when it began and close the Democratic convention officially this week, but it became clear that her presence revealed divisiveness in the party when she was booed and jeered throughout a brief address to her home state delegation of Florida at a breakfast Monday morning.
CBSNEWS.com, “Wasserman Schultz will not gavel in Democratic Convention,” 25 July 2016

The convention was instead opened by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore. A headline on the Baltimore Sun blog read “Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will gavel in Democratic National Convention.”

Gavel began as a noun meaning “a mallet used (as by a presiding officer or auctioneer) for commanding attention or confirming an action (as a vote or sale).” The exact origin of the term is unknown, but its use dates back to 1835. When used as a verb, gavel in means “to call a meeting to order.”

There are a number of older senses of gavel used as a verb, including “to rake or collect grain or hay in sheafs,” and “to subject to or distribute according to the custom of gavelkind.” The sense employed here, referring to the action of calling a meeting to order through use of the gavel, appears to be North American in origin, with our earliest citation dating from 1884.

At 12:20 the convention was gaveled to order by Hon. O. M. Barnes, Chairman of the State Central Committee.
The Detroit Free Press, 19 June 1884

Definition: "A government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes" and "A system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control"
When it trended: July 26, 2016

Bernie Sanders’s speech at the Democratic National Convention included vigorous endorsements of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. One of his statements sent many people to the dictionary to look up oligarchy:

Hillary Clinton will nominate justices to the Supreme Court who are prepared to overturn Citizens United and end the movement toward oligarchy in this country.

Oligarchy means "a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes." It dates back to the early 1600s, and comes from the Greek words that mean "few" and "to rule." Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, and while socialism is consistently in our top lookups at all times, it too experienced a surge of interest during Sanders's speech.

Definition: An express or implied promise or contract or quasi contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a suit, or a common-law action that may be brought for such a breach
When it trended: July 26, 2016

When Representative Joseph Kennedy III introduced Senator Elizabeth Warren on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, he told an anecdote that sent many Americans scrambling for their dictionaries:

First day of law school. First class. The goal: escape unscathed. Three seconds in, I get the first question:

“Mr. Kennedy, what is the definition of assumpsit?”
“Mr. Kennedy, you realize assumpsit was the first word in your reading?”
“Yes. I circled it because I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.”
I never showed up unprepared for Professor Elizabeth Warren again.
—Joseph P. Kennedy III, as quoted in The Boston Globe, 26 July 2016

While Kennedy successfully whetted the public's curiosity about the meaning of assumpsit, he never actually explained what it meant, causing his audience to take his advice and look it up. Lookups for assumpsit skyrocketed in the minutes after Kennedy's story; the following morning, lookups were still high at an astonishing 92,000% increase over the previous month's average.

Legally, an assumpsit is defined as an express or implied promise or contract or quasi contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a suit, or a common-law action that may be brought for such a breach. Assumpsit comes from the Latin for "he undertook," and originated in the 14th century as a form of recovery for the negligent performance of an undertaking. It gradually came to cover the many kinds of agreement called for by the expansion of commerce and technology.

The concept of assumpsit was first introduced in cases in which the defendant damaged goods entrusted to him by the plaintiff—e.g., where the defendant had taken the plaintiff’s horse in order to transport it across a river and negligently caused the ferry to overturn so that the horse drowned.

Assumpsit did not become a contractual remedy in the modern sense until two modifications occurred: (1) the emphasis shifted from the negligent act of the defendant to the defendant’s failure to keep his promise; and (2) the action was made available as a remedy in situations where the defendant did something improperly or neglected to do something he had promised to do.

Definition: An overwhelming affirmative vote by cheers, shouts, or applause rather than by ballot
When it trended: July 26, 2016

Acclamation and acclimation both spiked in look-ups after Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first woman to receive a major party nomination for the office of the presidency of the United States.

Sen. Sanders motion to suspend rules, select Clinton by acclimation was a real class act Thank you, Bernie!
—Twitter.com, 6:27 PM - 26 Jul 2016

BREAKING: Democratic party nominates @HillaryClinton by acclamation at the request of @BernieSanders.
—Twitter.com, 6:01 PM - 26 Jul 2016

Acclamation and acclimation have a subtlety of distinction that may have eluded many of the people who are using the latter word this evening. Acclamation has two primary meanings: it may refer either to “a loud eager expression of approval, praise, or assent,” or to “an overwhelming affirmative vote by cheers, shouts, or applause rather than by ballot.” This is presumably the word, in the second sense listed above, that most people were intending to use in their coverage of Clinton’s nomination.

However, one must not overlook the fact that, in its own fashion, acclimation—which saw a 1537% increase in lookups— might well be just as applicable. This word, which refers to the process or action of adjusting to a new climate, place, or situation, could well be used to refer to the first ever major party nomination of a woman to run for president.

Definition: Excessively fond of or submissive to a wife
When it trended: July 27, 2016

Lookups for uxorious spiked on July 27, after the word was used in Maureen Dowd's account of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. The speech marked the first time a potential First Husband addressed a national audience following the first-ever nomination of a woman to be president.

The speech was intended to be more personal than political, and it was full of anecdotes of Hillary Clinton’s home life as well as her career in politics. In her account of the speech in The New York Times, Dowd wrote:

In an act of amazing self-restraint, the man who relishes the word “I” managed to make the talk, as he prefers to call his folksy speeches, all about her. He was positively uxorious.

Uxorious means “excessively fond of or submissive to a wife” and comes straight from the Latin word for “wife,” uxor.

Definition: The offense of attempting to overthrow the government of one's country or of assisting its enemies in war
When it trended: July 27, 2016

Lookups for treason spiked 76% after comments by Donald Trump that seemed to encourage Russian spying on Hillary Clinton.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Mr. Trump said, staring directly into the cameras. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Mr. Trump’s call was an extraordinary moment at a time when Russia is being accused of meddling in the U.S. presidential election.—Ashley Parker, The New York Times, 27 July 2016

Reaction on Twitter was immediate, with many people using treason to describe what seemed to be Trump’s encouragement of hacking directed at his opponent.

Treason comes to English from the Old French traison, which can be traced back to the Latin traditus, the past participle of tradere (“to hand over, betray”). Tradere is also the Latin origin of our word traitor.

Treason may refer broadly to a betrayal of trust or confidence, but in the sense relating to politics it is defined rather specifically as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or his family,” and has a specifically legal meaning as well: “the act of levying war against the United States or adhering to or giving aid and comfort to its enemies by one who owes it allegiance.” This form of treason is occasionally referred to as high treason, which may be distinguished from petty (or petit) treason, which under English law historically applied to “the crime committed by a servant in killing his master, by a wife in killing her husband, or by an ecclesiastic in killing his superior.”

Definition: Insincere or foolish talk
When it trended: July 27, 2016

Malarkey rose to the top of our look-ups on the evening of July 27th, 2016, after Vice-President Joseph Biden used the word in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.

“He is trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break. That is a bunch of malarkey.”
—Joe Biden, quoted on Politico.com, 27 July 2016

We've commented on Biden’s use of this word before. Yet last night’s speech appeared to draw more attention to the word than had earlier speeches of the Vice President; Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate wrote that it was “the most electrifying use of the word malarkey in history,” and Ben Guarino at the Washington Post began his article by writing “If Joe Biden had a catchphrase, 'a bunch of malarkey' might well be it."

Biden does indeed appear to have an affinity for this word, with dozens of recorded uses over the course of his time in the public eye, stretching back to at least 1983.

But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), an opponent of Reagan's proposed changes on the commission, attacked Hatch's assertions as "unadulterated malarkey.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Jul., 1983

"Don't buy all this malarkey that we're (the Dukakis campaign) in so much trouble," Biden told the crowd.
—Bill Miller, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Oct., 1988

"You'll hear, 'This liberal President did this liberal thing, got sucked in,'" Mr. Biden told the gallery of rainy-day visitors. "Malarkey!" he countered in his straw man mini-debate, clearly bracing for two rugged days of holding the rhetorical fort.
—Francis X. Clines, The New York Times, 24 Apr. 1997

In addition to newspaper reports of Biden using malarkey, there is a considerable body of citational evidence demonstrating his use of the word in Congressional and Senate hearings:

Good, because absent that, the rest of this is malarkey, guys. You know it and I know it. Stop playing your intellectual games.
Hearing before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, 22 Mar., 2000

I know a little about this stuff. He knows a lot of about this stuff. The audience doesn't know what we're talking about, but you all know and we know. Just so you know that we know. It's one those kinds of things where it would be helpful if we cut through a lot of the malarkey.
Hearing before the Subcommittee of Crime and Drugs, 22 May 2002

I think that is malarkey. That is not legitimate.
Oversight Hearing on Counterterrorism, 6 June 2002

No one is certain where malarkey comes from, although a number of possible etymologies (such as it having descended from a Greek word, an Irish surname, or various forms of slang) have been proposed. Although the linguistic origins of malarkey are shrouded in doubt, we are fairly certain of its geographic roots: all of our initial evidence for this word comes from North America in the early 1920s.

Indeed the challenger has been so unimpressive in public that a coterie of volunteer pallbearers has made a practice of attending all workouts at the dog track and laughing immoderately at every move the Latin makes. They seem to think he is a lot of ‘malarkey,’ as it were.
New Castle News (New Castle, PA), 8 Sept., 1923

Some attempt has been made to account for the defeat of the United States hockey team by the Canadians in the Olympic games by declaring that the result was the fruit of team work rather than individual brilliancy. This is so much malarkey, according to the best informed sources.
The Evening Review (Liverpool, OH), 12 Feb., 1924

It remains to be seen whether malarkey will rise again in the wake of Biden's single-handed campaign to repopularize the word. In the meantime, for those who can't get enough malarkey, our list of synonyms (applesauce, baloney, flapdoodle, nerts, trumpery, folderol, horsefeathers....) is long and well worth reading.

Definition: The act or practice of pretending to be what one is not or to have principles or beliefs that one does not have
When it trended: July 28, 2016

Lookups for hypocrisy spiked after the word was used in Michael Bloomberg's speech at the Democratic National Convention. The former New York City mayor was bluntly critical of presidential candidate Donald Trump:

Truth be told, the richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy. He wants you to believe that we can solve our biggest problems by deporting Mexicans and shutting out Muslims. He wants you to believe that erecting trade barriers will bring back good jobs. He's wrong on both counts.
Transcript of Michael Bloomberg's DNC Speech, Vox.com, 27 July 2016

Hypocrisy in a relatively old word in English, with its use dating back to the 13th century. For the first several centuries of its use the word was spelled with an initial I or Y; it began to be spelled with an H in the 16th century. The word can be traced back to the Greek hypokrisis, which is defined as “the act of playing a part on the stage"; the word took on an extended meaning to refer to the act of wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something that one was not.

Hypocrite is of a similar age as hypocrisy, with regular use in English from the 13th century. The adjective hypocritical is of a slightly more recent vintage, with our earliest citation occurring in 1536, in Philipp Melanchthon’s The Confessyon of the Fayth of the Germaynes: “He speakethe not of those hypocriticall satisfactions, whiche schole men do imagine euen than also to be auayllable to the redemynge of the paynes of Purgatory, or of other paynes, whan they be done of them, whiche be in deadely synne.”

Definition: "Obstinate and unreasoning attachment to one's own belief and opinions with intolerance of beliefs opposed to them" and "Speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful”
When it trended: July 28, 2016

Lookups for bombast spiked after Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which she directly addressed Donald Trump’s qualifications, readiness, and temperament to be president:

And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn't get: America is great because America is good! So enough with the bigotry and the bombast. Donald Trump's not offering real change, he's offering empty promises.

Bombast means “speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful.” Despite the resemblance to bomb and an association with explosive rhetoric and loud delivery, bombast isn’t related to bomb at all. It comes from the Latin word bombax which means “cotton” and refers to cotton padding or stuffing. Thus, bombast etymologically means speech that is overstuffed, not speech that resembles a bomb blast.

Definition: The moment of truth; the time when something would be decided
When it trended: July 28, 2016

Lookups for reckoning spiked as news outlets reported Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the 2016 election was a "moment of reckoning."

Clinton Warns of a "Moment of Reckoning"
The New York Times, 29 July 2016

US Election: US Faces "Moment of Reckoning" says Hillary Clinton
BBC.com, 29 July 2016

Hillary Clinton: America at a "Moment of Reckoning"
U. S. News & World Report, 29 July 2016

Reckoning, which when used as a noun may mean several different things including “the act or an instance of computing or calculating,” “calculation of a ship’s position,” or “a settling of accounts," has been in use in English since the 14th century. When it is used in a temporal sense, such as “the hour/year/moment of reckoning” the word typically means “the moment of truth; the time when something would be decided.”


McCain (front, right) with his squadron, 1965. A former Navy pilot, McCain spent more than five years as a North Vietnamese prisoner.

Definition: Not controlled or restricted
When it trended: August 1, 2016

Lookups for unfettered spiked after Senator John McCain issued a statement condemning Donald Trump’s negative comments about the parents of a U.S. Army soldier killed in Iraq:

While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.

Unfettered means “not controlled or restricted” and is a synonym of free and unrestrained. It comes from fetter, which means “a chain or shackle for the feet” and also has the figurative meaning of “restraint,” or something that confines.

Unfettered has been in use in English since at least the beginning of the 17th century, when it was used by Thomas Dekker:

O happy persecution I embrace thee With an vnfettered soule; so sweet a thing It is to sigh upon the racke of love
—Thomas Dekker, Blurt Master-Constable, 1602

The word is a combination of the prefix un- and fetter. Fetter is an old word, going back to Old English, which existed initially as a noun and later became a verb with both a literal meaning of “to put fetters on” and a figurative one of “to restrain form motion, action, or progress." Fetter's Old English ancestor, feter, is etymologically shackled to "fōt," the Old English ancestor of "foot."

Definition: Of a kind to cause or apparently cause stroke
When it trended: August 3, 2016

Apoplectic rose, as bile rises in the gorge of a bilious patient, to the top of our lookups on August 3rd after reports that the chairman of the Republican National Committee was dissatisfied with Donald Trump’s latest political maneuverings.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is furious with Donald Trump's refusal to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), NBC News reported. Priebus is “apoplectic” over Trump’s remarks and called campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other top staffers to voice his “extreme displeasure,” NBC reported, citing a source in the GOP.
—Harper Neidig, TheHill.com, 3 Aug. 2016

Apoplectic, which comes from a Greek verb meaning “to cripple by a stroke,” initially had a medical meaning: “of, relating to, or causing apoplexy or stroke.” The word has been in use since at least 1562, when it appeared in Girolamo Ruscelli’s The Thyrde and Last Parte of the Secretes of the Reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemont: “This water is also verye good for men that be apoplectique yf they be wasshed with it.”

By the middle of the 19th century, apoplectic had begun to be associated with anger rather than actual apoplexy.

Definition: Something given up or lost
When it trended: August 3, 2016

Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention has become a main subject of several news cycles, in part because Donald Trump continued to criticize Mr. Khan for days following the convention.

Mr. Khan’s statement that Donald Trump "sacrificed nothing and no one” caused an increase in lookups for sacrifice that began on July 30 and lasted for nearly a week. It's likely that Trump's response—“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices”—played a role in keeping interest in sacrifice alive.

Sacrifice means “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else” or “something given up or lost,” and is a synonym of “loss.” It comes from the Latin words sacer (“sacred”) and facere (“to make”); its root word literally means “to make sacred.” In English, it originally referred to the slaughter of an animal as an offering to a deity.

Definition: Extreme egocentrism
When it trended: August 5, 2016

Lookups for solipsism spiked August 5th, after Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer used the word in reference to the Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump.

He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.
—Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 4 Aug. 2016

The word may be used as a philosophical term, with the definition of “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing.” However, when the word is not being used by philosophers it typically means “extreme egocentrism”, which appears to be the sense intended by Krauthammer.

Our earliest record of the use of solipsism in English comes at the very end of the 18th century, in a translation of a work by Immanuel Kant:

If the maxims should be adopted according to those ends (which are all dictated by solipsism), the conception of duty could properly speaking have no connexion whatever with the subject in hand.
—Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysic of Morals, 1799

Definition: Involving chance or probability
When it trended: August 10, 2016

Lookups for stochastic spiked after an article in Rolling Stone used the word to describe Trump's suggestion that "Second Amendment people" could "do" something about Hillary Clinton:

Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication "to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."
—David S. Cohen, Rolling Stone, 9 Aug. 2016

Although the modern sense of stochastic (“random” or “involving chance or probability”) did not begin to be used until the early 20th century, the word had an earlier incarnation and meaning, one that is now in thorough disuse. In the 17th and early 18th centuries stochastic was used in the sense of “subject to, or pertaining to, conjecture.”

Ergo, the Popish Religion is but stochasticke, and conjecturall.
—Andrew Logie, Raine from the Clouds, 1624

The word comes from the Greek word stochastikos, which means “skillful in aiming” or “proceeding by guesswork.”

Definition: A bounding or limiting line
When it trended: August 10, 2016

The word Rubicon spiked in online lookups on August 10, 2016, following Donald Trump’s insinuation that gun-rights advocates might assassinate Hillary Clinton. The comment drew immediate attention and criticism, including this headline from the web page of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”:

'Disqualifying,' 'toxic': Trump crosses rubicon

Rubicon means “a bounding or limiting line,” especially “one that when crossed commits a person irrevocably.” It was the name of a small river in north central Italy that separated Italy and Gaul in Roman times, which was crossed by Julius Caesar against the orders of the government in 49 B.C. The resulting civil war in Rome led to Caesar becoming the undisputed leader of the Roman world—and the end of the Roman Republic. It’s usually capitalized and used in the phase “crossing the Rubicon.” This is not the first time that Rubicon has been used in reference to Donald Trump’s candidacy:

Predictions that Trump had somehow crossed the rubicon by insulting Iowa caucus-goers — via a tweet he later blamed on an intern — haven’t fully panned out in the polling.
—Tierney Sneed, talkingpointsmemo.com, 29 December 2015

"As a matter of prudence, the Republican Party should also have the ability to reject a leader, no matter how popularly elected, if they are guilty of impropriety or misconduct," Republican strategist Rory Cooper wrote in a post for Medium. "The Rules Committee have it within their power to install a mechanism whereas if a potential nominee crosses a line or embarrasses the party to an extraordinary degree, delegates can vote for an alternative candidate. Many in the party believe Trump has already crossed that Rubicon."
—Diana Pearl, People, 14 June 2016

But the latest — his invitation for America’s widely condemned rival Russia to hack Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails — has crossed a new political Rubicon.
—Editorial, thestar.com, 28 July 2016

Definition: A sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain
When it trended: August 12, 2016

Sarcasm and sarcastic both shot to the top of our look-ups on August 12th as Donald Trump sought to explicate his claim that President Obama founded ISIS (President Obama did not found ISIS):

Donald Trump Explains His Obama-Founded-ISIS Claim as ‘Sarcasm’
The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2016

In reversal, Trump says IS claim about Obama was sarcastic
The Washington Post, 12 Aug. 2016

Both words may be traced to the Greek word sarkazein, which may be defined as “to tear flesh like dogs,” “bite the lips in rage,” or “speak bitterly, sneer.” Of the two, sarcasm is the older word, with use dating back to 1550. Sarcasm means "a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain" or "a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual."

Our earliest citation for the word sarcastic comes from 1638, when Edward Raban used it in a rather self-serving fashion:

To Vindicate, and deliver my self, from the imputation of Sarcastick, bitter, too loose, & liberall speaches, agaynst the most Noble, Worthie, and Transcendant Sexe of WOMEN, (which some, knowing their own imperfect weaknesse, may apprehend to be Calumnies, and detractiue to the whole Sexe) I here make humble Oblation….
—Edward Raban, The Glorie of Man Consisting in the Excellence and Perfection of Woman, 1638

And if you were hoping that there is a word for a sarcastic person, you’re in luck: it’s sarcast.

Definition: To turn on or as if on a pivot
When it trended: August 16, 2016

Pivot spiked in lookups after Donald Trump announced that this was a thing which he had no plans of doing.

“I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change. Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well you’re going to pivot.’ I don’t want to pivot,” Trump said in a Tuesday interview with Wisconsin television station WKBT. “I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
—Igor Bobic, The Huffington Post, 16 Aug., 2016

Although pivot has enjoyed a long life in English as a noun—it's been around since the 14th century—it has but recently (using recently rather relatively) come to be used as a verb. The earliest known use in this part of speech is from the 18th century, when the word began to be used by dentists in descriptions of the things that they would do to one’s teeth.

Mr. Spence, having now returned to Philadelphia, begs leave to inform the public that he continues to perform every operation relating to the TEETH, such as cleaning, pivoting, extracting, &c. &c. in the best manner, and according to the latest discoveries.
Pennsylvania Journal, 7 Jan., 1786

Pivot is often encountered these days in highly figurative use, indicating that a person is shifting positions or tactics.

Definition: To obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release
When it trended: August 17, 2016

Lookups for redact spiked after the F.B.I. gave Congress materials from their investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server, and again after the F.B.I. released its summary report of its investigation.

Chaffetz (R-Utah) said his staff had informed him that among the materials turned over was a “heavily redacted” 302 from Clinton herself, and he was not sure that any of the information could be released publicly.
—Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian, The Washington Post, 16 Aug., 2016

According to a person familiar with the matter, the unclassified portions of the FBI’s material weren’t heavily redacted, with the exception of some names.
—Devlin Barrett, The Wall Street Journal, 16 Aug., 2016

Redact has been used as a verb since at least the 15th century, although the earliest meanings of the word were somewhat different than the one that is generally encountered today. Earlier senses of the word have included “to select or adapt for publication; edit,” and “to lower in condition or quality.” A more common current meaning of redact is “to obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release.”

Definition: A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
When it trended: August 24, 2016

Bigot spiked dramatically in lookups on August 24th, after comments made by Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi.

As Donald Trump listed the ways that he would make life better for African Americans living in poverty, he suddenly shouted, "Hillary Clinton is a bigot!"
-Sean Sullivan and Jenna Johnson, The Washington Post, 24 Aug., 2016

The current definition of bigot is “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” However, when the word first entered the English language (borrowed from French at the end of the 16th century) it had the meaning of “a superstitious religious hypocrite.”

Definition: Idealizing or idolizing biography
When it trended: August 25, 2016

Hagiography spiked in lookups on August 25th, after this relatively obscure word appeared in headlines for two distinct articles about two distinct people.

Ann Coulter’s Donald Trump hagiography was very poorly timed
-The Washington Post (headline), 25 Aug. 2016

Review: In an Obama Biopic, the Audacity of Hagiography?
-The New York Times (headline), 25 Aug. 2016

The earliest meaning of hagiography was “a biography of saints” (it comes from Greek roots for “holy” and “writing”). The word has been used in this sense in English since the early 17th century.

First therefore, If I be demaunded whether through the world there were not many sundry Abces inuented of diuers men? I answere, there was but one: and that one, of God himselfe, the true Hagiography or Hieroglyps of our first Fathers.
-Alexander Top, The Olive Leafe, 1603

Today, however, the word is most often employed in a largely figurative sense, relating to a biography that idealizes its subject (as seen in the two headlines above).

Definition: Conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature
When it trended: September 7, 2016

Donald Trump’s recent comments on national security included his plan to defeat terrorism:

I am going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction: They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for defeating ISIS.

Speaking to Anderson Cooper on CNN, retired army general Mark Hertling reacted to Trump’s idea by pointing out that the military have been trying to defeat ISIS for years, and that many would take offense at the notion that they haven’t. He added:

It's a sophomoric approach to elements of national security policy.

Sophomoric means “conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature.” It’s the adjective form of sophomore, which probably comes from the combination of the Greek words sophos ("wise") and mōros ("foolish")—clearly, it was felt that students in their second year had learned a bit of wisdom, but not enough to keep them from being foolish.

Other words that come from sophos are philosopher and sophisticated; others that descend from mōros include moron.

Definition: Very bad in a way that causes shock, fear, or disgust : deserving to be deplored
When it trended: September 9, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s use of the word deplorables when describing “half of Trump supporters” sent many people to the dictionary to look up the word. At a fund-raiser in New York, Clinton said:

To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.

Donald Trump’s campaign demanded an apology for the remark.

One reason some people may have looked up the word may be that it seems unfamiliar: deplorable is defined as an adjective meaning either “lamentable” or “deserving censure or contempt,” a synonym of “wretched” or “abominable.” But Clinton’s use in the plural, deplorables, marks the word as a noun—and deplorable is not defined as a noun in Merriam-Webster dictionaries. (Deplorableness is given as the noun form.)

Clinton’s use of deplorables is ambiguous: the word could be defined here as “people who are deplorable” or “qualities or characteristics that are deplorable.” Part of the ambiguity comes from the novelty of the usage, since deplorable is rarely used as a noun in this way. The Oxford English Dictionary does include a rare use of deplorable as a noun dating to the early 1800s, defined as “deplorable ills,” as in “rheumatism and other deplorables.” There's another example in the February 8, 1838 edition of the Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY): "You have already been informed of all the steps taken by the government to put a final period to these commotions, and I trust that the authors of the deplorables committed in New Mexico, will meet their just reward."

Deplorables has been used as a noun more recently, but it's rare:

Secretary Robert H. Finch of the Health, Education and Welfare Department, announcing the final wording of the statement, conceded it was a compromise--"a delicate balance" between a "list of deplorables" and their ratio of incidence.
The Omaha World-Herald, 8 April 1970

A 1996 letter to the editor of the Augusta Chronicle offered a "list of personal deplorables" in which the author bemoaned everything from child abuse to the burning of churches, "one deplorable after another."

Adjectives are often used as noncount nouns: “the beautiful,” “the sublime,” “the just,” and even “the unemployed.” When used as count nouns they can draw attention to a particular quality exhibited by a group: “the ancients,” “the dailies.”

Deplore ultimately comes from the Latin word deplorare, from plorare meaning “to wail” or “to lament” with the prefix de-, used in this case to underscore or intensify the meaning of the word (just as de- is used in words like declare and declaim).

Definition: "One that is despised or rejected" and "exaggerated pride or self-confidence," respectively
When they trended: September 14, 2016

Lookups for the words pariah and hubris spiked after the release of leaked emails belonging to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the emails, Powell wrote “Trump is a national disgrace and an international pariah.”

Pariah means "one that is despised or rejected" or "outcast."

It comes from the word for "drummer" in the Tamil language of southern India, where some tribal drummers and servants were regarded as social outcasts.

In the same release of emails, Powell also criticized Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server, writing, “Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”

Hubris means “exaggerated pride or self-confidence” and was borrowed from Greek.

Up Next

10 Fancy Words for Fancy Talk

Definition: a British game played by rolling a wooden ball toward a set of objects in order to knock over as many objects as possible
When it trended: September 20, 2016

Lookups for skittle spiked as Twitter reacted to this tweet from Donald Trump Jr.:

The candy brand Skittles replied with the statement "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy."

In truth, we don't enter the "candy" sense of skittle—that's a trademarked word. Unlike some of the trademarks we do enter, such as such as Kleenex, Frisbee, and Dumpster, the word skittles has not shown prolonged and substantial use as a general term. In other words, if skittles were to be used for a number of years by many people to refer to any sort of small colorful candy, then it would merit a distinct definition—but that hasn't happened so far.

So, why is skittles in our dictionary? The word has a long-standing use in English, referring to a British bowling game in which a wooden ball is used to knock down pins, or skittles. The earliest evidence we have for this word comes from a 1630 play, used in rather poetic fashion.

To cleaue you from the scalpe
Vnto the twist: to make nine skittles of
Your bones, and winde your heratstrings 'bout my thumbe—
—William D’Avenant, The Just Italian, 1630

This "bowling" sense of skittles is the sense intended in the phrase beer and skittles, as in "life isn't all beer and skittles."

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