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Lookups spiked 5,400% on March 26, 2019
Whitewash was among our top lookups on March 26th, 2019, after Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, used the word to refer to the decision to drop charges against actor Jussie Smollett.
The mayor and police chief blasted the decision and stood by the investigation that concluded Smollett staged a hoax. A visibility [sic] angry Mayor Rahm Emmanuel [sic] called it “a whitewash of justice” and lashed out at Smollett. He asked, “Is there no decency in this man?”
— Amanda Seitz & Michael Tarm, Associated Press (apnews.com), 26 Mar. 2019
For a word which is in some ways monochromatic by definition, whitewash had a nuanced and far-ranging palette of definitions. As a noun it initially meant “a liquid composition for whitening a surface,” which might refer to “a preparation for whitening the skin,” or “a composition (as of lime and water or whiting, size, and water) for whitening structural surfaces.” The sense employed by Emanuel is “an act or instance of glossing over or of exonerating,” which has been in use for hundreds of years now. Additional possible meanings of the noun include “a defeat in a contest in which the loser fails to score,” “an efflorescence on the surface of a brick,” and “bird excrement especially when appearing as a chalky coating on or about a nest or perching site.”
If this is the case, our being called christians is only a burlesque upon christianity, and our professions of religion the mere whitewash of hypocrisy.
— American Advocate (Hallowell, ME), 21 Feb. 1818
Trend Watch is a data-driven report on words people are looking up at much higher search rates than normal. While most trends can be traced back to the news or popular culture, our focus is on the lookup data rather than the events themselves.