Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Nov. 26

The words that defined the week ending November 26th, 2021


This word, which spikes in lookups every Thanksgiving, comes to English from the Latin cornu copiae (the literal meaning of which is “horn of plenty”). When cornucopia first began being used in English, in the beginning of the 16th century, it was with a definition very close to its Latin origin: “a curved, hollow goat's horn or similarly shaped receptacle (such as a horn-shaped basket) that is overflowing especially with fruit and vegetables (such as gourds, ears of corn, apples, and grapes) and that is used as a decorative motif emblematic of abundance.” The following century saw its meaning broaden, and it took on the sense in which the word is often found today: “abundance, an inexhaustible store.”


Renominate spiked in lookups, after President Biden did this to Jerome Powell, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Biden crosses liberals to renominate Powell as Fed chairman, keeping a crisis-tested veteran to tackle inflation
— (headline) Boston Globe, 22 Nov. 2021

Renominate may be defined as “to nominate again especially for a succeeding term.” The word has been in use in English since the beginning of the 19th century, taken from the considerably older (16th century) nominate. Both renominate and nominate come from the Latin nominatus, which is the past participle of nominare, which itself comes from nomen, meaning “name.”


Custody received considerable attention of late, after a man who had been running for a political position withdrew from the race after losing custody of his children.

Trump-Backed Senate Candidate Sean Parnell Drops Out Of Race After Losing Custody Battle
— (headline) CBS Pittsburgh, 22 Nov. 2021

The sense of custody relevant here, which is often applied to children, is “protection, care, maintenance, and tuition: guardianship.” However, one may have custody of other things, either physical (as objects), or not (as legacies): “the act or duty of guarding and preserving (as by a duly authorized person or agency): safekeeping.” Additionally, one may have control or responsibility of a person in a different legal sense, as when police have custody of a suspect: “imprisonment or durance of persons or charge of things.”

’Burner Phone’

Burner phones were in the news, following news reports that devices of this description had been used in the planning of the attack on the United States Capitol last January.

Jan. 6 Organizers Used Anonymous Burner Phones to Communicate with White House and Trump Family, Sources Say
— (headline) Rolling Stone, 23 Nov. 2021

We define burner phone (which is also often simply called burner) as “a prepaid cell phone that is not bound to a contract with a carrier and is usually intended to be disposed of after use.” Many people first encountered this term through the HBO show The Wire, a crime drama that was on the air from 2002 to 2008. In the series, reference was often made to burners, or burner phones: disposable cell phones which drug dealers bought at convenience stores and used to avoid being wiretapped.

The writers of The Wire did not invent burner phone. Evidence of its use can be found at least as far back as 1996, when the rapper Kingpin Skinny Pimp used it on the song One Life 2 Live: “Talkin’ on the burner phone, bumpin’ hutch.” At about the same time that it was modifying phonesburner was also being applied to other things that one might wish to use with a degree of anonymity or a lack of commitment, such as email accounts or usernames for Internet sites. A search of Google Groups archives shows a message from 2001, saying that a member “is offline at the moment…so he won't be receiving any mails sent to his burner account.”

’Black Friday’

Today is Black Friday, a not-holiday that we define as “the Friday immediately following Thanksgiving Day that is considered by retailers to mark the beginning of the holiday shopping season.”

Facing scarce year-end inventories and a shortage of workers, retailers are turning "Black Friday" into a month-long event.
Reuters, 23 Nov. 2021

We also provide a note with this definition, stating “The origin of Black Friday in this sense is not known for certain. The day was allegedly so named either in reference to traffic congestion in central cities on the day after Thanksgiving or to the supposed fact that retailers' accounts shifted from red to black with the beginning of the shopping season.” It is worth noting that this consumerist Black Friday is but one in a very long line of other Black Fridays, some of which date back hundreds of years. Our records show more than a half dozen other specific Fridays being modified with this adjective. Fridays could be described in this manner for a variety of reasons, the most common being financial panic of one sort or another. Other reasons for naming this day of the week thusly include political intrigue, acts of war, and, tragically, marking the day in 1955 that Emmett Till’s murderers were found not guilty.

Friday, April 12th, the day of the attack on Sumter, has already got the unenviable name of “the Black Friday.”

— The San Francisco Herald, 3 May, 1861

In all the history of panics in the United States, none is probably so well remembered as that known as “Black Friday,” which occurred in September, 1869.

— Detroit Free Press, 12 May 1901

I’m sick … in heart … in soul … in body! This is “Black Friday” in Mississippi … in America … throughout the entire civilized world!

— James Edmund Boyack, Pittsburgh Courier, 1 Oct. 1955

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is materialistic, defined as modern use as “overly concerned or preoccupied with material possessions rather than with intellectual or spiritual things.” The word initially had the meaning of “of, relating to, or deriving from the theory or doctrine of materialism” (this sense of materialism is defined as “a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter”). Previously our earliest sense of materialistic was from 1832, but recent findings show that the word was in use in the 1820s.

Such are the conclusions to which one of the most eminent physiologists of the nineteenth century has arrived with regard to the thinking principle; and if it be considered that this has been done by a pupil of Bichat, and a native of a country as yet remarkable for its materialistic philosophy, we cannot but gladly acknowledge that the commencement of a better era is at hand.
The French Quarterly Review, Sept. 1828

In modern times some go entirely too far in their admiration of the North American separation of church and state, which has chiefly originated in the indifferentism and materialistic principles of the eighteenth century.
Christian Advocate and Journal, 24 Jul. 1829