Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Jan. 21

The words that defined the week ending January 21st, 2022

’Minor’ & ‘Gaffe’

Minor and gaffe were both in the news last week, after President Biden made a statement using the former word in a manner that many people felt qualified as an example of the latter.

It was 28 minutes into Joe Biden's press conference when the gaffe came - and it was a jaw-dropper. Especially if you were watching in Kyiv or the Kremlin. The US President appeared to say that, if Vladimir Putin were to make only a "minor incursion" into Ukraine, then Russia would not face devastating sanctions.
— Nick Allen, The Telegraph (London, Eng.), 20 Jan. 2022

The relevant sense of minor is defined as “inferior in importance, size, or degree : comparatively unimportant” (assuming that Biden was not making an obscure reference to a musical sense, such as “having a minor third above the root,” or an educational one, such as “of or relating to an academic subject requiring fewer courses than a major”). This word comes from the Latin minor, meaning “smaller, less, inferior.”

Gaffe may be defined as either “a social or diplomatic blunder” or “a noticeable mistake.”

’African American’

African American was looked up by a large number of people, after comments by Senator Mitch McConnell appeared to indicate that he was unaware of the meaning of the second portion of this compound.

The minority leader made the remark at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, when he was asked about concerns that people of color have about voting rights. “The concern is misplaced because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” McConnell said.
— Bruce Schneider, Associated Press, 20 Jan. 2022

We define African American as “an American of African and especially of Black African descent.”


Larvate was not in the news at all recently, and while we’re not angry with all of you, we are disappointed. After all, this pandemic has been going on for two years now, and no one has yet turned to the dictionary with the question in their eyes ‘is there a word that means “covered or concealed by or as if by a mask”?’ Because if you had we would have told you about larvate, which comes from the Latin larva (meaning “mask”), and means precisely that. True, this word is mainly found in entomological use, but we’re sure that the insect people won’t mind sharing it with the general public. What could be more pleasing than saying larvate multiple times a day (“Are you going to the show tonight?” “I’m not going unless everyone there is gonna be larvate.”)? We are certain that nothing could be more pleasing.


We occasionally see words spike after someone famous has passed away, perhaps because they had been widely regarded as iconic or because they were described in obituaries as mercurial. This week saw an increase of lookups for erudite, a word used by Anna Wintour to describe André Leon Talley, the fashion giant who recently died of a heart attack.

Even his stream of colorful faxes and emails were a highly anticipated event, something we all looked forward to,” said Anna Wintour. “Yet it’s the loss of André as my colleague and friend that I think of now; it’s immeasurable. He was magnificent and erudite and wickedly funny—mercurial, too.
— Nicole Phelps, Vogue, 19 Jan. 2022

Erudite means “having or showing knowledge that is gained by studying.” The related noun erudition is defined as “extensive knowledge acquired chiefly from books : profound, recondite, or bookish learning.” The word comes in part from the Latin rudis, meaning “rude, ignorant,” a root it shares with rudiment and rude.

’Step down’

Step down had a bust week, as numerous people (mostly in the United Kingdom) called for Boris Johnson to do just this.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is weathering ever-louder calls to step down — coming even from within his own party — amid a scandal over events he hosted while the rest of the U.K. was on COVID-19 lockdown.
— Scott Neuman, NPR, 19 Jan. 2022

Step down, when used in this sense, means “to withdraw from one's position or occupation.” In this sense it is largely synonymous with retire and resign.

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is vice presidency, defined as “the office of vice president.” Our earliest known use of this word had previously come in 1804, but recent findings show that it has been in use since at least 1788, the year before John Adams first assumed this office.

There is no doubt that Genl. Washington will be called to the Presidency. For the vice Presidency, are talked of principally Mr. Hancock & Mr. Adams.
— James Madison (letter to Thomas Jefferson), 8 Oct. 1788 (