Word Matters Podcast

The Newest Words in the Dictionary

Word Matters, Episode 70

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We recently added a whole bunch of new words. Here are some of our favorites!

Download the episode here.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, the dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com recently got a bit bigger. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Lexicography isn't of course, all about recording podcasts and researching interesting and controversial uses of words, there's also the part about writing definitions. In fact, several hundred new words and meaning were recently added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. In this episode, we're going to tell you about some of them.

Peter Sokolowski: One of the great things about having the dictionary online is that the recent work on the dictionary gets to be seen more quickly, and the definitions that are added are definitions that we can announce. And we recently had a release of new words, 455 new words and definitions, and we'd like to talk about some of those new entries.

Emily Brewster: Do you have a favorite?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, there's no question that the favorite, the darling of this batch is the word fluffernutter, and everybody loves that word, and I do too. It's a fun word to say. And I just looked in our citation files at the history of that word, and we have evidence in the files of it going back to before 1980. We found much more evidence online, we can date it back to 1961, but what's interesting to see it in the files is also to see the stamps, to see that it was rejected for the ninth collegiate rejected for the 10th collegiate, rejected for the 11th collegiate, and it finally has made its way in, so that's the clear favorite.

Emily Brewster: We should define this word, not everybody knows what a fluffernutter is.

Peter Sokolowski: True. Part of the interest is that it is at least originally a regional term and marshmallow fluff has its origins, I believe in Summerville, Massachusetts, and so there's a lot of local pride in New England and in the northeast, but fluffernutter we define as a sandwich made with peanut butter and marshmallow creme between two slices of white sandwich bread.

Emily Brewster: I did not write this definition and I really love that it specifies the white sandwich bread. If somebody is making you your fluffernutter on whole grain bread, they are doing it wrong.

Peter Sokolowski: I actually mentioned the same thing within a meeting last week. I said, "I grew up with these." I don't think it would've occurred to me to add that but it's a great detail.

Emily Brewster: I had never heard of a fluffernutter growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We did not have fluffernutters, but I've now been in New England for a long time, and so I have been aware of fluffernutter as a term. But it really has been a very regional term for a long time. In recent years, it is becoming more widely known and loved.

Peter Sokolowski: As a word qua word, I like the term whataboutism that we added to this batch as well because the definition is the act or practice of responding to an accusation of wrongdoing by claiming that an offense committed by another is similar or worse. And I find that this is a word that has been around but has come into prominence in the past few years, and it speaks to our dialogue. It speaks to our politics. It speaks to the way that we communicate and the way that we project messages, whether they're political, or from an individual or a party, or from a broader swath of the population. And I just think that the dictionary keeping up with the language is also in some ways keeping a pulse on what we're talking about today. That's not always true in our new words lists, and sometimes a word like fluffernutter will seem unrelated to the news of the day. And that's true, but there are words like this one that, to me, that touches on our times.

Emily Brewster: Yes, and we also entered in British English, they don't say whataboutism, they say whataboutery.

Peter Sokolowski: Whataboutery, right. Right. Right.

Ammon Shea: That's right. Charming. I think one of the points that you're making there, Peter, of us keeping up the language, but I think is interesting here is exactly that the way you've said, that we're keeping up with it, we're kind of following behind, trying our best to make note of how the language is changing and growing. And in this case we date whataboutism to 1978, so it's actually been in use for some while but that doesn't mean that it was in widespread use and it doesn't mean that it was in a sufficiently broad use so that we would actually take note of it or feel that it warranted an entry and a definition. So one of the things that I think we come across as dictionary makers is often this MIS impression that people have that a word is not a word until it is in the dictionary, and that is not our view at all. We are not conferring official status to these words, we're just saying that it's used sufficiently that we think that it's of interest to the English speaking people as part of our mandate, but we're not giving it any official sanction.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course, you're right. And to some extent, the new terms that are added to the dictionary are always kind of reflect their rear view mirror. We are not creating these words, we're not introducing them, although in some cases these are new words to some people who see these lists. At the same time, I sort of can't deny the confusion. They can't deny that the way this operates is that some people do think that the dictionary does confer an official status. It certainly does confer some kind of status to these words as an acknowledgement at least of having penetrated the culture to this point. Emily, your favorite word?

Emily Brewster: My favorite word of this list. Oh, I'm trying to decide between two. I'm going to say them both. So one of my favorite words in this list is the prepositional use of because. This was chosen as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year a few years ago.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. Yeah.

Emily Brewster: It's the use of because that you see, and someone says that this very technical process works because, because technology, right? It's just like this very shorthand way of ...

Ammon Shea: Because science.

Emily Brewster: Right. Because science.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Right. Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm going to go outside because summer. How about that? That would work.

Emily Brewster: That's a good one.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yes. So traditionally, because functions as a conjunction, it joins together phrases or clauses, but this is a new use of because. It's very informal. It's very useful. We say in our definition that it is often used in a humorous way to convey vagueness about the exact reasons for something. I like it. Don't go using it in your term papers.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Or that sort of thing. It's an example of functional shift.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: We've talked about functional shift a number of times, or English speakers will push a word into new semantic territory, specifically a new part of speech. It's pretty rare that we get a new preposition. We get new nouns all the time, we get new verbs all the time, we get new adjectives, that's all fine, but the set of prepositions and the language is a relatively small, generally closed set. It is not a rich source of linguistic development, so I like that about this new use of because.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure, and it's very distinctive. Using this term involves a novel syntax for most of us.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: And so you notice it, it catches your ear. And we should mention also that the linguist, Gretchen McCulloch has a book called Because Internet about the way that the internet has affected language and vice versa. When she published just a couple of years ago, it was still very new, it was still very fresh, and I think it will, for our lifetimes, always sound like a new use, like a new preposition. And you're right, prepositions are really function words and function words in English typically are ancient words. They're as old as the language itself.

Emily Brewster: And we should also mention that Gretchen, along with Lauren Gawne, they are hosts of an excellent podcast called Lingthusiasm.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Emily Brewster: Because is tied for favorite for me with the word ... I have to spell it A-M-I-R-I-T-E. Pronounced amirite.

Peter Sokolowski: Amirite.

Emily Brewster: Sounds like a phrase, it's a single word. It's slang. It's used in writing for the phrase am I right? To represent or imitate the use of this phrase as a tag question in informal speech. We have an example, English spelling is consistently inconsistent, amirite? This is a very playful word. It's so interesting to me. It's the second time in recent history that we have entered a word that is primarily a written form. I think it was just a few months ago that we entered the spelling of folx, F-O-L-X.

Peter Sokolowski: But you can't tell by just hearing it.

Emily Brewster: Nope. Doesn't work in speech, right? You have to see it for it to really do its job. The word F-O-L-X and F-O-L-K-S sound exactly the same, just as amirite? You can say it with a nod that kind of implies that you're using this single word spelling, but it's a written form.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a transcription really of that sort of rhetorical pose that you make with that kind of amirite? Which is an emphatic use of it. The fact that this is found in social media primarily, that means it's keyed in, and so we have a different spelling.

Emily Brewster: It's playful. It's joking with you as it's functioning.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, staying in this category of terms that are connected to online culture and communication. There are a couple of abbreviations, T-B-H, meaning to be honest.

Emily Brewster: To be honest, Peter, I don't know what you're talking about.

Peter Sokolowski: T-B-H.

Emily Brewster: T-B-H.

Peter Sokolowski: And F-T-W, for the win. And again, these are informal. Many people, if you're not extremely online, these may be new to you. But if you are someone who reads social media posts, you will see these and you'll also see them used in a playful way, increasingly in things like headlines and journalism, not just in the posts that unedited writers, writers writing just to express themselves, but actually edited publications use these abbreviations now.

Emily Brewster: That's right because we do not aim to enter in the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary all of the texting abbreviations that you and whoever use back and forth, right? We don't try to collect those. We have our hands full just trying to collect everything that has made it into published, edited text primarily.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: We do consider evidence from other sources, but our dictionary is supposed to reflect what the language in its more stable form.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: And that is what appears in published edited text.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, exactly. And O-M-G had gone in a few years ago, and that's maybe even more familiar as one of these kind of internet based abbreviations. But speaking of online culture, there are a couple of more serious terms deplatform, meaning to remove and ban a registered user from a mass communication medium, such as a social networking or blogging website. The term digital nomad, which means someone who performs their occupation entirely over the internet while traveling. And so those are new and important terms that have professional ramifications, they have public consequences, and so they're very serious terms for a new medium.

Ammon Shea: Quick question for you guys, both as long term editors who have dealt with defining for many, many years. Have you noticed any changes in the new words? Is it always that there's some new form of technology that's mixed with some kind of social use of a word? Are we getting heavier in terms of technological words or social media words than we were, say 20 years ago?

Peter Sokolowski: Well, these must be slow moving trends but certainly online and computer basically, digital culture has been a huge source of new vocabulary for a generation.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, in the time that I've been practicing lexicographer, technology has been a driver of new vocabulary that entire time. You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Coming up, more on the dictionary's newest additions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word, email us at WordMatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at Merriam-Webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

Emily Brewster: Our dictionary updates typically happen twice a year or so, and that means there's plenty to talk about when an update occurs. Here's more on the most recent additions to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: Other key categories are food. There's always new food terms, and part of that is that because the world has essentially gotten smaller, our appetites have gotten larger. And what I mean by that is that we have more access in many places to cuisines that weren't around 20 years ago or 50 years ago.

Emily Brewster: Or weren't in the United States.

Peter Sokolowski: Weren't here. That's right. So restaurants of Turkish food and Korean food, in addition to what we might have known before as sort of French German, Indian, the cultures that have common established themselves, Pho came in just recently from Vietnamese restaurants, and [inaudible 00:12:45] from Korean, so we're absorbing more foreign terms through food. But also one thing that I remember going back to the 11th collegiate, so the last 20 years, medical terms moved from being about treatment to being about administration of medicine. So a term like hospitalist, which is a doctor who works within a hospital system. More of those kinds of terms that might really have more to do with insurance or bureaucracy and not with treatment because there was a whole vocabulary in the last 20 years that has kind of grown in that field as well. So speaking of medical terms, we are of course, still getting new vocabulary from the coronavirus pandemic, and some of the newer terms include a new use of the term breakthrough, meaning an infection occurring in someone who is fully vaccinated against an infectious agent. And this is a term that many of us are very familiar with, but only in the last year or so. Because even during the 2020 part of the pandemic, there weren't vaccines, so there weren't breakthrough infections. And now this is a new term to most of us but one that has become familiar almost immediately.

Emily Brewster: It's interesting to me that this term was not widely used to refer to breakthrough infections of the flu, for example.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: Because flu vaccines have been around for a very long time.

Peter Sokolowski: I've never heard it that way.

Emily Brewster: And we have not traditionally talked about a breakthrough. Yeah, I caught the flu, even though I was vaccinated. It's a breakthrough infection.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure, and we have another new use of an older term, which is super spreader. Super spreader used to be defined only as an individual who spreads a disease to many others. But now there's a new sense, meaning an event or location in which many are infected, and so these are the ways that the language has adapted very, very quickly.

Emily Brewster: We also have, of course, long COVID. This is one of the harsher terms of our current reality.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Long COVID defined as a condition that is marked by the presence of symptoms, such as fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, headache, or brain fog, which persist for an extended period of time, such as weeks or months following a person's initial recovery from COVID 19 infection.

Peter Sokolowski: Very specific.

Emily Brewster: And unlike breakthrough has this COVID specific application, long COVID having the word COVID in it, is very specific to this particular kind of infection. We also have vaccine passport and vaccine hesitancy. Those are both words that we just entered. I think they're pretty self explanatory. The passport is what you now have to show if you are going some place that requires that you be vaccinated in order to be there, and vaccine hesitancy, the hesitation to get a vaccine or to have one's kids vaccinated.

Peter Sokolowski: Vaccine passport is an entry, and yet, it's still such a flexible and changeable category. It's not like there is a single passport that is recognized by every political entity or every country, or even every state or city, but because it's been discussed so frequently, it's gone into the dictionary, even though the standards aren't really in place.

Ammon Shea: Emily, you mentioned earlier that some of these words obviously, are more or less self explanatory, which makes me think of one of the recent additions we have, which is I think not at all self explanatory, which is critical race theory. And I bring this term up in part because it's new, it's very much in the news, but one of the ways in which it's in the news I think is that people talk about it as something they're opposed to, and then when they're asked what it is that they're opposed to, they have trouble either articulating or defining what is precisely. So I wonder if you two could describe the kind of definition and the process by which this one got into our dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Well, the fact that there is great discussion about what it means and that the word is very prominent right now means it's an excellent candidate for entry in the dictionary, which is why it was entered. And our definition of it really points to part why this is a word that is a complicated word. It's actually defined as a group of concepts, such as the idea that race is a sociological, rather than biological designation, and that racism pervades society and is fostered and perpetuated by the legal system. That's a parenthetical. So it's a group of concepts such as these that are used for examining the relationship between race and the laws and legal institutions of a country, and especially the United States. It's certainly understandable based on this definition that this would be a word that people would be unclear on.

Ammon Shea: It's an abstract thing. That's always been the role of the dictionary. Some of the most looked up words in our dictionary are abstract words like integrity because those are the hardest concepts to grasp and explain simply. And I noticed the word concept is our genus term as the first important word in a definition, the sort of category, the classification that we're giving to this word being defined. And in this case, a group of concepts, I think that's a useful beginning because it immediately tells us that we're talking about ideas.

Emily Brewster: And that parenthetical that begins with such as, tells you that critical race theory as is the case with theories in general, they're open to shifting in what they apply to.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Now other categories of new terms includes ... We mentioned the political term whataboutism, but there was also astroturf, which I think is a useful term, and one that I've heard for a number of years, but hear it with its metaphorical use, the definition falsely made to appear grassroots. And it's interesting to think of astroturf itself was a trademark at one time, so it used to be a capitalized brand.

Emily Brewster: It still is.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, for fake grass.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: But now in this use, it's not capitalized because first of all, it's not a noun here, so that's kind of interesting.

Emily Brewster: I like that one too.

Peter Sokolowski: What about more food words? There's a couple from Spanish speaking cultures, horchata and chicharrón. Horchata, a cold sweetened beverage made from ground rice or almonds, usually flavorings, such as cinnamon or vanilla, and chicharrón is a small piece of pork belly or pig skin fried and eaten usually as a snack. Great definitions for when you're hungry.

Emily Brewster: I did not know this one, this new food word, new to me and new to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary is Goetta, capital G O-E-T-T-A. The capital G is your big hint ...

Peter Sokolowski: It's from German.

Emily Brewster: For the word's origin. Yes. In the German language, nouns all of them proper, improper, they're capitalized, and so Goetta in its borrowed form has, for now anyway, got a capital G. That capital G in our dictionary is a reflection of published edited text so people are at this point still capitalizing Goetta when they use it in English. It's very possible that in the future, we will have to downgrade that capital G in Goetta to a more anglicized lowercase G. It's defined as meat, such as pork mixed with oats, onions, and spices, and fried in the form of a patty.

Peter Sokolowski: There must be other nouns in English that we capitalize because of their German origin.

Emily Brewster: I think [inaudible 00:19:39] is often capitalized.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. I see, yeah, because it is a noun after all, you're referring to a feeling, right? So that's interesting. Yeah. There's another term that we connect to food but is also maybe connected to the pandemic, which is ghost kitchen. We define it as a commercial cooking facility used for the preparation of food consumed off the premises, and we sometimes call this cloud kitchen or dark kitchen. These are terms that you knew before.

Emily Brewster: Yes, I've been familiar with those terms for a few years. They definitely predate the pandemic but they've become more prominent because of the pandemic. But these are terms certainly, that came from before 2020.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. There are always words from pop culture, more informal language, so this time we entered dad bod.

Emily Brewster: Dad bod.

Peter Sokolowski: Do we have to define dad bod?

Emily Brewster: I think we should. It's labeled informal. It means a physique regarded as typical of an average father, especially one that is slightly overweight and not extremely muscular.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Emily Brewster: So if you're extremely muscular, you don't have a dad bod.

Peter Sokolowski: Too bad. Another is faux-hawk, that's F-A-U-X - H-A-W-K. So faux as in false. Faux-hawk, a hairstyle resembling a mohawk and having a central Ridge of upright hair but with the sides gathered or slicked upward or back instead of shaved. A great definition. There's always terms that come from business, come from commerce. We have blank check company, a corporate shell. That's a term that's been in use since the 1980s but just got into the dictionary. Doorbell camera, and I have to say sometimes I see these little ads on YouTube for a doorbell camera, it seems like surveillance culture is going this particular route, which is this sort of private route. You should have it for your home so you know it's your pets and not a burglar. It's an interesting sort of marketing ubiquity that I seem to find. And then we also just entered small ball, which has been around for a long time, if you've watched baseball and basketball, but it also has a figurative use, a strategy for progressing towards a goal by proceeding in small steps or by addressing small matters. Small ball.

Emily Brewster: Here's another one I like from this batch is copy pasta.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, there we go.

Emily Brewster: Copy pasta is a playful word. It's playing on the phrase copy paste from word processing, right? If you copy paste, you can control C and then control V to highlight text with the control C and then paste it, control V. But copy pasta. We define it as data such as a block of text, but it could also be a meme that has been copied and spread widely online. It can have serious intent or not so serious intent, but I think it's a fun word.

Peter Sokolowski: It's interesting to just reflect on the fact that a lot of communication is propagated in this way now, that really it was impossible before social media. The amplification of really an identical message is unparalleled. At least technologically, this is something we all have become familiar with to the extent that even when I'm on Twitter, there's a lot of tweets I know I don't have to pay attention to because I know oh, I can sort of recognize this is sort of that meme or that message, kind of repeated, I get the joke, and I can move on.

Emily Brewster: And it used to be that if you wanted to propagate something, you had to have expensive means by which to do that.

Peter Sokolowski: Or broadcast means of some kind.

Emily Brewster: And then came the photocopier, and everything has been downhill since then.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. Another one, I love this word, is cube sat, and standing for a satellite shaped like a cube, and it's usually a small cube. The volume is one cubic meter and so we define it as an artificial satellite typically designed with inexpensive components that fit into a cube with a volume of one cubic meter. And these are often for school projects, academic research, or just private citizens can put things into orbit. At some point, we have to worry about the consequences of this.

Emily Brewster: Have the space trash. It's crazy.

Peter Sokolowski: And do you want to define the next one from Dr. Seuss?

Emily Brewster: Oh, Oobleck. This is another one that is capitalized.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: That is a little surprising. It's spelled O-O-B-L-E-C-K, and it isn't capitalized because it's a German noun. It is capitalized because it gets its name from the title of a story by Dr. Seuss called Bartholomew and the Oobleck. Oobleck is defined as a mixture of corn starch and water that behaves like a liquid when it rests, and like a solid when pressure is applied. If you've ever played with Oobleck, it is really remarkable stuff. It behaves like a liquid, you can pour it, but if you push on it, it becomes like a solid. It's a very strange substance.

Ammon Shea: Do we accept Dr. Seuss's use, Theodore Geisel's use as the actual first use, or is it that people started using it in a different way afterwards?

Emily Brewster: In the story, Oobleck is just some kind of slime so the Suess-ian use of Oobleck is merely the inspiration. Our first date for this use of Oobleck to refer to this corn starch water mix is 1973, but the book was published in 1949.

Ammon Shea: What's interesting about that is that there are other Suess-ian words that we've come across, like nerd is the most famous example in which he used nerd. I think it was in If I Ran the Zoo in 1950 or something. Except that some people think well, Dr. Suess invented it, except that he uses it in a way that's totally unrelated to our modern use of the word nerd. So it's always a question with him, is he just being entirely playful with language or is there some basis for his use of it? Is he just using a word that's still around but using it in a kind of [inaudible 00:25:02] fashion?

Peter Sokolowski: Right. His use of Grinch is similar, more similar even than nerd because Grinch does come from the name of the character, but the character's personality is what defines a Grinch.

Emily Brewster: Just like Ebenezer Scrooge inspires a Scrooge.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right. Yeah.

Emily Brewster: So there's a really close, semantic relationship between the Dr. Suess use and the established use of the ...

Peter Sokolowski: The Suess-ian.

Emily Brewster: English word.

Peter Sokolowski: Suess-ian was added to our dictionary, I believe just a couple years ago. That's a great word. It's a fun word to say. These are all fun words. It's sort of fascinating to see which words are added to the dictionary because it tells us something about the way language changes, but also about the way and the pace at which words are added to the dictionary. A word like fluffernutter, we date back to 1961, so 60 years, and that's a word therefore, that kind of took its own sweet time to get into the dictionary. And there are other terms in this list, especially in the last year and a half or so, that really are brand new. And I always say every word has its own pace because we do truly use the same criteria for entry, whether a word is informal or scientific or offensive, sports related. It really doesn't matter. If the word is frequently used and you are likely to encounter it, then it goes into the dictionary. In the case of informal terms like fluffernutter or any of the slang terms, if they're more frequently spoken for a long time, that takes automatically longer for inclusion in the dictionary.

Emily Brewster: I like to say that our criteria are consistent but they are also intentionally vague.

Peter Sokolowski: They have to be.

Emily Brewster: Extended use over an extended period of time in a variety of sources but all you need is to have a word appear in Hamlet's soliloquy and it's going to be in for the long haul, even if nobody else is using it because that constitutes substantial use right there.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. Exactly. They are vague but I would also argue they're sort of mechanical, and what I mean by that is there's a dispassionate attitude that we take toward these terms. We basically want to see if they're ready. Not if we like them, not if they're useful, not if they're funny, but if they're ready.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: If the language has basically decided with our votes by usage that we have decided this is a useful word.

Emily Brewster: Right. Even if you hate the word, you still have to enter it. You still have to define it as a definer if it meets the criteria.

Ammon Shea: Many people might think that the terms dispassionate and vague are not really words to be self described with pride but we buck that trend. We proudly self describe as dispassionate and vague.

Emily Brewster: Our definitions aren't vague though.

Peter Sokolowski: Certainly not.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at WordMatters@M-W.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci for Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski. I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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