Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Sept. 24

The words that defined the week ending September 24th, 2021


Whip received more attention than usual last week, after the border patrol was observed whipping Haitians at the southern border of the United States.

The White House said on Monday that footage appearing to show border patrol agents using whips against Haitian migrants coming into the United States from Mexico was unacceptable and not appropriate.
Reuters, 20 Sept. 2021

After images were published on Monday appearing to show a U.S. Border Patrol agent on horseback using a cord of rope as a whip to chase down Haitian migrants crossing over the Mexican border into Texas, the Department of Homeland Security announced an investigation into the incident.
— Matt Stieb, New York Magazine, 22 Sept. 2021

There has been some amount of debate about whether the agents were actually using a whip, or were merely employing a non-whip item to perform the act of whipping. It seems worth mentioning that there are many possible meanings of the noun form of whip (our Unabridged dictionary has 15 senses, a number of which may be further divided into multiple subsenses), and that there is no single definition that constitutes a whip. The definition that many people seem to be looking for here is “an instrument consisting usually of a handle and lash forming a flexible rod that is used for whipping.” Please note the use of the word usually within the definition, as it is not there by accident: this indicates that there are circumstances in which an object may in fact be a whip even though it does not have a handle and a lash. Additionally, we provide a sense of whip defined as “something that resembles or acts as a whip”; a piece of spaghetti can be a whip if one whips someone or something with it.


Badass spiked in lookups following reports of the passing of Melvin Van Peebles.

Sometimes called the “godfather of modern Black cinema,” the multitalented Van Peebles wrote numerous books and plays, and recorded several albums — playing multiple instruments and delivering rap-style lyrics. He later became a successful options trader on the stock market. But he was best known for “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” one of the most influential movies of its time.
— Jake Coyle, AP, 22 Sept. 2021

Peebles did not coin the word badass (we have written evidence of its use since the mid-1950s, and the word would almost certainly have been in spoken use for some time prior to that), but is likely more responsible than anyone else for its success, due to the elongated use of the word in his 1971 movie Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Badass may be defined, as an adjective, in two different ways: “ready to cause or get into trouble; mean,” and “of formidable strength or skill.” As a noun the semantic content is somewhat narrower: “a person who is badass.” For those who are interested in the noun referring to the "the state or condition of being a badass" rather than to the person themself, the proper word is badassery.


Subpoena spiked in lookups at the end of the week, after it was announced that a number of members of the former administration would soon be served with these.

The select panel investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is issuing subpoenas to four current and former top aides to President Donald Trump, including his most recent chief of staff Mark Meadows.
— Kyle Cheney and Nicholas Wu, Politico, 23 Sept. 2021

We define the noun form of subpoena as “a writ commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure,” and the verb as “to serve or summon with a writ of subpoena.” The word comes from the Latin sub poena, a combination of sub (“under, beneath, below”) and poena (”penalty).


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Hester Lynch Salusbury Thrale Piozzi, and as a result there is a bicentenary conference in her honor.  

Bicentenary is another word for bicentennial, which may be defined as “a 200th anniversary or its celebration.” Piozzi is today often remembered for having been a close friend and of (and literary collaborator with) Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century lexicographer, but she is a figure worth attention on her own. For those who are interested in overlooked writers of the 18th century, a singular women’s influence on lexicography, and anything connected with Hester Piozzi, this is the event of the weekend.


Racketeering jumped in lookups last week, as the trial of R. Kelly, who is accused of this crime, wrapped up.

The defense for R. Kelly rested its case Wednesday in the singer’s federal trial on racketeering charges in Brooklyn, with Kelly’s lawyers calling only five witnesses to the stand over the three-day-long defense.
— Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone, 23 Sept. 2021

A person who is a racketeer is “one who obtains money by an illegal enterprise usually involving intimidation,” and the verb may be defined as “to extort money from.” The origin of the word is unknown, but it does not appear to be related to the racket that one hits a ball with (that one comes from rusgh, an Arabic word for “wrist”).

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is racketeer, defined in the entry above. Our earliest known use of this word as a noun had previously come in 1924, but recent findings show that we have had racketeers as far back as the late 19th century.

Argonia knows its old-time rackets and racketeers no more. They have all emigrated to Kansas City which emulates Chicago in energy, and excels it in wickedness.
— The Atlanta Constitution, 22 Jan. 1888