The Words of the Week - 6/25/21

The words that defined the week ending June 25th, 2021
25 june on wood blocks

It's an eclectic mix this week.


Conservatorship was very much in the news this week, as Britney Spears appeared in court in an attempt to end her forced affiliation with one.

In a 24-minute statement against the conservatorship she’s lived under for 13 years, Britney Spears sounded off before a Los Angeles probate judge Brenda Penny on Wednesday, saying that she wants to sue her family and that she was “abused” by a previous therapist, among multiple other accusations.
— Jem Aswad, Variety, 23 Jun. 2021

We define conservatorship as “the office of conservator.” A conservator may be defined as “one that preserves from injury or violation,” “an official charged with the protection of something affecting public welfare and interests,” or “a person, official, or institution designated to take over and protect the interests of an incompetent.”


Reports of the demise of John McAfee caused many headlines to prominently feature antivirus.

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee found dead in Spanish prison
— (Headline), Associated Press, 23 Jun. 2021

Antivirus came into English in the late 19th century, from the realm of medicine; the word initially had the sole meaning of “acting, effective, or directed against viruses.” Virus took on a new meaning in the jargon of computers (“a program that is designed to harm a computer by deleting data, ruining files, etc., and that can be spread secretly from one computer to another”) in the 1970s, and a decade later antivirus had broadened its meaning to include “used to protect a computer from viruses.”


Vulgar found itself in high demand last week, as reporters relied heavily on this word as a modifier to avoid using another word, one that is still taboo in many forms of media in this country.

The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a Pennsylvania school district had violated the First Amendment by punishing a student for a vulgar social media message sent while she was not on school grounds.
— Adam Liptak, The New York Times, 23 Jun. 2021

Vulgar (“offensive in language”) comes from the Latin vulgus, meaning “mob, common people.” Many of the other meanings of this word show this root; vulgar may mean “understood in or having the ordinary sense,” “of or relating to the common people,” and “vernacular.” Other times vulgar appears to have drifted semantically far from its origins; the meaning of vulgar establishment is not, as one might expect, “dive bar,” but “the average interval of time that occurs between the moon's upper transit and the first high water following the transit and that is taken at the time of the full moon or new moon.”

The vulgar word in question, for those who are interested in such things, is the one famously described by Allen Walker Read, in his 1934 paper in American Speech, as “the most disreputable of all English words—the colloquial verb and noun, universally known by speakers of English, designating the sex act.”


Suspend hung over the minds of many newspaper writers last week, after Rudy Giuliani’s license to practice law in the state of New York was subjected to this verb.

Rudy Giuliani's New York law license was suspended on Thursday, after a state appeals court found he had lied in arguing that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from his client, former U.S. President Donald Trump.
— Jonathan Stempel, Reuters, 24 Jun. 2021

The sense of suspend most relevant to Giuliani’s affairs is “to debar temporarily especially from a privilege, office, or function.” The word has an ancestor in part in the Latin word pendere, meaning “to cause to hang, weigh.” Suspend shares this root with a number of other English words, including compendium, perpendicular, and everyone’s favorite, vilipend.

Our Antedating of the Week: ’multibillionaire’

Our antedating of the week is multibillionaire, that increasingly less-rare breed defined as “a person whose wealth is estimated at many billions (as of dollars or pounds).” Our earliest known use had previously come in 1894, well before such creatures existed. We have recently discovered lexical evidence of theoretical multibillionaires slightly earlier, in 1892.

Under the third party’s financial platform, if it could be made to work, the multi-millionaires would become multi-billionaires, and the multi-one-dollar fellows would become half-dollar fellows.
The Tennessean (Nashville, TN), 25 Feb. 1892

Now that we've found that, we just sit back and watch the money roll in, right?