Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Nov. 19

Dictionary lookups from Jacob Chansley, Julius Jones, Malcolm X, Gosar, and a fentanyl seizure.

’Clemency’ & ‘Commute’

Both clemency and commute were high in lookups late last week, after the Governor of Oklahoma commuted the sentence of Julius Jones.

Clemency, in a legal sense, is defined as “willingness or ability to moderate the severity of a punishment (as a sentence)” or “an act or instance of mercy, compassion, or forgiveness.” In legal use commute means “to change (a penalty) to one less severe especially out of clemency”; when used as a noun (“a change of a legal penalty or punishment to a lesser one”) the word is commutation. Commute differs slightly from pardon, which (when used as a verb) may be defined as “to absolve from the consequences of a fault or the punishment of crime : to free from penalty.”

’Sentence’ & ‘Shaman’

In other legal news, sentence and shaman both were found in considerable profusion, after a man who has oft been described as the latter was subjected to the former.

Jacob Chansley, the former actor and Navy sailor better known as the QAnon Shaman, who was portrayed by a prosecutor as “the flag-bearer” of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, was sentenced on Wednesday to 41 months in prison.
— Alan Feuer, The New York Times, 17 Nov. 2021

The legal definition we offer for sentence (as a noun) is “a judgment formally pronouncing the punishment to be inflicted on one convicted of a crime”; as a verb it is “to impose a sentence on.” The meaning of sentence dealing with “a group of words that expresses a statement, question, command, or wish” comes after the ones dealing with levying judgment.

Shaman is defined as “a priest or priestess who uses magic for the purpose of curing the sick, divining the hidden, and controlling events.” The word, in use since the 17th century, comes ultimately from the Evenki (a Tungusic language of Siberia) word šamān.


In still more legal news, two men convicted of killing civil rights leaders Malcolm X, and long thought by many to be innocent of this charge, were recently exonerated of this crime.

2 men to be exonerated in killing of Malcolm X
— (headline) The Washington Post, 18 Nov. 2021

Exonerate is defined as “to relieve of a responsibility, obligation, or hardship” or “to clear from accusation or blame.” The word may be traced to the Latin verb exonerare (meaning "to unburden”), which itself is formed by combining the prefix ex- with onus, a word meaning "load" or “burden.” In early use the word was often used of relieving a person or thing or a burden (which could be a physical one), later taking on the meaning “to clear from accusation or blame.”


Anime spiked in lookups as a result of a video posted by Paul Gosar, a member of the House of Representatives, that featured content leading to the congressman being censured.

The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to approve a resolution that censures Rep. Paul Gosar and strips him of his two committee assignments, the first time a sitting House member has been censured in more than 10 years. The action led by House Democrats represents a major rebuke to the Arizona Republican for posting a photoshopped anime video to social media showing him appearing to kill Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking President Joe Biden.
— Annie Grayer and Clare Foran, CNN, 17 Nov. 2021

Anime is defined as “a style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colorful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes.” The word has a curiously circuitous etymology: an English word, anime, that was borrowed from Japanese, in which anime is a shortening of animēshiyon, which comes from the English animation. This route is similar to that taken by several other words in English, such as karaoke (which comes in part from ōke, short for ōkesutora, which comes from the English orchestra).


Fentanyl had a busy week, after a number of stories focused attention on it.

Experts believe the top drivers are the growing prevalence of deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users socially isolated and unable to get treatment or other support.
— Mike Stobbe, NBC New York, 17 Nov. 2021

Fentanyl has the snappy definition of “a synthetic opioid narcotic analgesic C22H28N2O with pharmacological action similar to morphine that is administered transdermally as a skin patch and in the form of its citrate C22H28N2O·C6H8O7 is administered orally or parenterally (as by intravenous or epidural injection).” In use since 1964, the name is thought to be an alteration of phenethyl, a monovalent radical derived from ethylbenzine, from phen- and ethyl.

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is lip-smacking, an adjective that we define as “highly pleasing or appealing to the sense of taste or smell: delicious.” Our earliest known use had previously come in 1902, but recent findings show that the word was in use as far back as 1873.

The Journal office is under obligation to Mr. W. Thatcher for a supply of hymeneal cake, which was pronounced by “all hands” as excellent. Thatcher has a way of making cakes which is really lip-smacking.
The Saline County Journal (Salina, KS), 27 Feb. 1873