Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Oct. 8

The words that defined the week ending October 8th, 2021


Facebook and a number of its associated companies were found to be incommunicado for a time this week, a situation that much of the world found either charming or vexatious.

Monday’s outage of Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, one of the longest in Facebook’s history, marooned billions of users who rely on the social media giant and its apps for everything from connecting with friends to running their businesses and logging into websites.
— Terry Collins, Kelly Tyko, and Mike Snyder, USA Today, 5 Oct. 2021

When outage came into English use in the middle of the 19th century the initial meaning was “a quantity or bulk of something lost in transportation or storage.” In modern use the word typically means “a failure or interruption in use or functioning” or “a period of interruption especially of electric current.”


In addition to outage, Facebook was responsible for whistleblower spiking in lookups, due to testimony from one of the company’s former workers.

Facebook is facing a historic crisis. Revelations brought to light from whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, has led to what may be the most threatening scandal in the company's history.
— Bobby Allyn, NPR, 5 Oct. 2021

Whistleblower is defined as “one who reveals something covert or who informs against another, especially : an employee who brings wrongdoing by an employer or by other employees to the attention of a government or law enforcement agency.” The word’s first use, in the middle of the 19th century, was entirely without metaphor: a whistleblower was simply someone or something that blew a whistle.

They see by every breeze and from this quarter that Harmanson is plunging and foaming at a rate that must prove his utter destruction before November, and they, the pipe-layers and whistle-blowers of the city are sonnding (sic) the alarm in earnest.
— Southern Sentinel (Plaquemine, LA), 22 Aug. 1849

By the end of the 19th century the word was in slightly extended, and figurative use, referring to a person who blew a whistle at a sporting event (as referees do). In the middle of the 20th century the word moved further afield into its modern sense.

The statement later says that despite the fact that Playboy was among the earliest whistle-blowers and despite Gov. Rockefeller’s reassurances that no economic reprisals would be suffered by those who cooperated in the investigation “we were dismayed to learn that the press in New York reports a plan by the State Liquor Authority to question our license status.”
— Variety, 24 Apr. 1963


A possibly unintentional form of epizeuxis (“emphatic repetition”) was spotted in the wild last week, after a political action committee aligned with former President Trump revised its name by simply repeating the last word.

"We look forward to building on the success of MAGA Action with our new committee, Make America Great Again, Again!" Pam Bondi, a former attorney general of Florida, said of the new group.
— Chris Cillizza, CNN, 5 Oct. 2021

In addition to its rhetorical sense of “emphatic repetition,” epizeuxis is also a term in Greek and Latin prosody, in which it carries the sexy yet whimsical definition of "the joining of two successive ionics a minore so that the syllables that come together exchange quantities (as when ˘˘––|˘˘–– becomes ˘˘–˘|–˘––).” It just rolls off the tongue, right?

’Kidney’ & ’Nephric’ & ‘Backfriend’

A story in The New York Times about a writer, her donated kidney, and another writer who may have used this kidney for inspiration caught the eye of many, and caused far more attention to be paid to kidneys than is usually the case.

What, Precisely, Is Going On With the New York Times Kidney Story?
— (headline), 6 Oct. 2021

We will not weigh in on the merits of the story or any of its protagonists. But we will weigh in on the meaning of kidney, and offer up some related words. Our definition of kidney is a corker, and will fit perfectly in any form of post-modern literature: “one of a pair of vertebrate organs situated in the body cavity near the spinal column that excrete waste products of metabolism, in humans are bean-shaped organs about 4¹/₂ inches (11¹/₂ centimeters) long lying behind the peritoneum in a mass of fatty tissue, and consist chiefly of nephrons by which urine is secreted, collected, and discharged into a main cavity from which it is conveyed by the ureter to the bladder.” If you need a word meaning “of, relating to, involving, or located in the region of the kidneys” you may use either renal or nephric. For those who have read this story it may be useful to know that we define the word backfriend as “a seeming friend who is secretly an enemy.”


Nobel spiked in lookups last week, as it often does during this time of the year, after the winner of the Nobel Prize was announced.

U.K.-based Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose experience of crossing continents and cultures has fed his novels about the impact of migration on individuals and societies, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday.
— David Keyton, Jill Lawless, and Cara Anna, AP News, 7 Oct. 2021

The prize in question is named for one Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833–1896), a Swedish manufacturer, inventor, and philanthropist. Every year when the Nobel is announced someone manages to confuse the name with the word noble, which is an entirely different word, and most often means “possessing outstanding qualities: illustrious.” You now do not have to be that someone.

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is solipsism, defined as “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing”; the word also means “extreme egocentrism.” Our earliest known use had previously come from an 1836 translation of a philosophical work of Immanuel Kant, but recent findings show that an 18th century English translation of Kant contained the word.

The duties towards one’s self only are at present the subject in agitation; inordinate thirst of gain (insatiableness in acquiring) in order to waste, as well as sordidness (painfulness in spending), bottoms upon solipsism (solipsismus), and both, prodigality as well as penuriousness, seem to be rejectable merely because they tend to poverty, the one not expected, and the other arbitrable….
— Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysic of Morals (trans.) 1799