Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Dec. 3

The words that defined the week ending December 3rd, 2021


Omicron suddenly found itself in the position of ‘Greek letter du jour,’ after the World Health Organization used it to name the latest variant of Covid-19.

Germany agreed new COVID-19 restrictions on Thursday and the United States prepared to do the same, while U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the Omicron variant showed the pandemic could be around for "some time”.
Reuters, 2 Dec. 2021

Omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, was chosen after the W.H.O. opted to skip the 13th and 14th letters of the alphabet (nu and xi) because the former sounds like “new” and the latter is a common surname. Omicron comes from the Greek o mikron, which literally means “small o,” as opposed to omega, the 24th letter of the Greek alphabet, which comes from ō mega (“large o”). Here is how it's pronounced: play .


Pantheon was in the news last week, following an announcement that Josephine Baker would soon be inducted into the French varietal of this.

Josephine Baker, the American-born entertainer and civil rights activist who first achieved fame in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, was given France's highest honor on Tuesday when she was inducted into the French Pantheon, the nation's mausoleum of heroes.
— Eleanor Beardsley, NPR, 30 Nov. 2021

The earliest sense of pantheon in English is “a temple dedicated to all the gods,” a sense that is rarely found in generic use (it is commonly applied, in capitalized form, to name the domed temple in Rome that was begun in 27 b.c. by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa).

Pantheon may also mean “the gods of a people,” “a group of illustrious or notable persons or things,” or “a building serving as the burial place of or containing memorials to the famous dead of a nation.” In this last sense, as with the word’s earliest meaning, generic use is uncommon; the Pantheon referred to in Baker’s case is an actual building, begun about 1757 by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot as the Church of Sainte-Geneviève.


Wistful was on the minds of more people than usual, after music-streaming company Spotify released its assessments of the listening habits of its users, assigning adjectives (such as bold, happy, or wistful) to each.

We define wistful as “full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy” or “musingly sad, pensive.” The word is a blend, formed by combining the word wishful with the now-obsolete wistly (which means “intently”).


Suspend trended in lookups, after two separate incidents drew attention to it.

CNN has suspended prime time anchor Chris Cuomo "indefinitely, pending further evaluation," after new documents revealed the cozy and improper nature of his relationship with aides to his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
— Oliver Darcy and Brian Stelter, CNN, 1 Dec. 2021

The women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that it was immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to the disappearance from public life of the tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.
— Matthew Futterman, The New York Times, 1 Dec. 2021

The sense of suspend relevant to Cuomo is “to debar temporarily especially from a privilege, office, or function,” while “to cause to stop temporarily” is more apt for the decision made by the sporting organization. The word comes in part from the Latin pendere (“to cause to hang, weigh”), a root it shares with compendium, stipend, and perpendicular.


Arguments made before the Supreme Court drew attention to the word calculus, after one of the justices used the word.

We define calculus in a variety of technical ways (including “a method of computation or calculation in a special notation (as of logic or symbolic logic)” and “the mathematical methods comprising differential and integral calculus —often used with the”), but the word also may function simply as a synonym of calculation (“studied care in analyzing or planning,” “the result of an act of calculating”), the manner in which Sotomayor employed it. In Latin calculus meant “pebble.” Because the Romans used pebbles to do addition and subtraction on a counting board, the word became associated with computation.


Resign spiked in lookups, after the CEO of Twitter announced, via said platform, that this is what he had just done.

A number of our readers may well find themselves in a similar position, and could have questions about whether they should resign as the CEO of their large tech company, or if they should simply quit. Here is our advice on the matter:

When used today to refer to the action of leaving employment or a position these words (resign & quit) carry similar meanings. However, many people hold that it is well-nigh impossible for any two words to mean the exact same thing, since there are often semantic subtleties and differences in register that distinguish between words. For instance, it is not at all wrong to say that someone quit a job in disgrace, but it is far more common to use resign in this setting.

Resign is also encountered more often in formal settings; our Unabridged gives the definition of “to give up, relinquish, or forswear one's office, rank, membership, post, or charge especially formally and definitely — often used with from” as one of the verb’s intransitive senses. You may quit a job, position, or membership in protest, but, as with disgrace, this particular word is more likely to be paired with resign. Again, there is not a great difference between the two not-gonna-bother-with-this-mess-anymore senses of these words, but if it makes you feel better you may think of resigning as quitting when it puts on a bowtie; tidied up and starched, and occasionally a little more formal than it needs to be.

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is health insurance, defined as “insurance against loss through illness of the insured; especially, insurance providing compensation for medical expenses.” Our earliest known use of this had previously come in 1901, but recent findings show that we’ve been writing about, and worried about, health insurance since at least the 1820s.

Until the Life Insurance schemes had attained practical accuracy, the Health Insurance scheme, dependent on the same principles could not be matured.
Prize essays and transactions of the Highland Society of Scotland, 1824

Life and Health Insurances.—The Royal Union Association Office, 5, Lancaster-place, Strand, side of Waterloo-bridge, is now Open daily, from 10 till 3, and on Mondays from 6 till 9, for the Admission of Members, Male and Female; to secure Allowances in Sickness; Sums of Money at Death; Annuities; Endowments, &c.
The Observer (London, Eng.), 4 Sept. 1825