Words of the Week - Aug. 4

Dictionary lookups from the Pleistocene, the Holocene, and the legal scene
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Roundworm wriggled its way up the lookup charts after scientists revived a novel species (either it had never before been classified or is otherwise extinct) of roundworm from a permafrost deposit, where it had been in suspended animation for 46,000 years. The previous sleep record for a roundworm was 39 years.

At a time when the mighty woolly mammoth roamed the Earth, some 46,000 years ago, a minuscule pair of roundworms became encased in the Siberian permafrost. Millennia later, the worms, thawed out of the ice, would wriggle again, and demonstrate to scientists that life could be paused—almost indefinitely. The discovery, published this week in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Genetics, offers new insight into how the worms, also known as nematodes, can survive in extreme conditions for extraordinarily long periods of time, in this case tens of thousands of years.
— Orlando Mayorquin, The New York Times, 1 Aug. 2023

We define roundworm as a synonym of nematode, both referring to any of a host of elongated cylindrical worms belonging to the phylum Nematoda or Nemata that are parasitic in animals or plants or free-living in soil or water. Roundworm is also sometimes used for a round-bodied unsegmented worm (such as a spiny-headed worm) as distinguished from a flatworm.

‘Blue Moon’

Blue moon trends once in a blue moon, so naturally it is seeing a rise in lookups as a blue moon will be rising later this month.

This year will see four supermoons—one of which already came and went: the Buck Moon on July 3. Next up is the Sturgeon Moon on Aug. 1, followed by the blue moon on Aug. 30 and the Harvest Moon on Sept. 29.
— Ricardo Delgado, The San Antonio (Texas) Express News, 1 Aug. 2023

The earliest known record of blue moon to mean “a very long period of time” appeared in 1821 in a book called Life in London by Pierce Egan. The book, which colorfully depicted the lifestyles of all strata of London society, presents one character who says, “How’s Harry and Ben?—haven’t seen you this blue moon.” A footnote in the book to blue moon states that “this is usually intended to imply a long time.” It can reasonably be inferred from the note that blue moon was a slang term on the streets of London back then, but more about its origin is unknown. This meaning of blue moon has nevertheless remained the most common one in the expression “once in a blue moon.”

Blue moon also refers to the second full moon to occur in a single month, a usage that dates to the early 1900s. We have to conclude then that the already existing term was applied to what is, in fact, the rare occurrence of two full moons in a month, and not that this rare occurrence provided the origin of the expression “once in a blue moon.”

‘Unindicted Coconspirator’

Unindicted coconspirator (often styled unindicted co-conspirator) became one of the top lookups of the week after the latest indictment of former president Donald Trump (on four counts related to attempts to overturn the 2020 election) listed six as-yet unidentified unindicted coconspirators.

Prosecutors said in the new charging documents that Trump “was determined to remain in power” after losing the 2020 election, and that he and six unindicted co-conspirators orchestrated a plot to overturn the results on and leading up to January 6, 2021.
— Tierney Sneed and Zachary Cohen, CNN Wire, 2 Aug. 2023

The Republican Party is represented in the lawsuit by John Eastman, the attorney who helped Donald Trump try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and who appeared to be an unindicted coconspirator in an indictment against Trump that was released Tuesday.
— Sandra Fish and Jesse Paul, The (Denver) Colorado Sun, 1 Aug. 2023

We define unindicted coconspirator as “a person who is named in an indictment as one who took part in a conspiracy to commit a crime but who is not charged in the indictment.”

‘Wet-bulb Temperature’

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Actually, it’s both, which is why wet-bulb temperature has been spiking in lookups thanks to reportage around the world of deadly, record-breaking weather.

When heat and humidity combine, sweat doesn’t evaporate, which limits the body’s ability to cool itself. The wet bulb temperature (WBT) index uses both heat and humidity to give an indication of how dangerous a heatwave is. A dangerous wet bulb temperature is usually considered to be 35C, which is an air temperature of 40C and relative humidity of 75%, but the threshold may be lower.
— Helen Sullivan, The Guardian (London, England), 1 Aug. 2023

We define wet-bulb temperature in our unabridged dictionary as “temperature indicated by a wet-bulb thermometer that is lower than the actual temperature of the air.” A wet-bulb thermometer is one of two thermometers in a psychrometer, which is defined as “a hygrometer consisting essentially of two similar thermometers with the bulb of one being kept wet so that the cooling that results from evaporation makes it register a lower temperature than the dry one and with the difference between the readings constituting a measure of the dryness of the atmosphere.”


Peewee saw increased lookups this week following the death of comedian and actor Paul Reubens, whose most famous character was the iconic “Pee-wee Herman.”

Paul Reubens, the actor who created and portrayed Pee-wee Herman and delighted generations of kids and adults with his singular zaniness, died Sunday night, at the age of 70, after a lengthy battle with cancer. Though Pee-wee was largely ostensibly as children's entertainment, the character’s appeal was vast, and Reubens’ work was deeply influential to a generation of comedians and performers.
Rolling Stone, 31 July 2023

Paul Reubens got the name “Pee-wee” from the Pee-wee brand of miniature harmonicas. We define the relevant sense of the noun peewee thusly: “one that is diminutive or small, especially a small child.” The word first appeared in the late 18th century (usually spelled pewee) and was used to refer to any of various small largely gray or olive-colored American flycatchers, who were so named because of their song, which sounds to many ears like “pee-wee.”

Word Worth Knowing: ‘Epilimnion’

If you happen, in these dog days of summer, to be estivating at a deep-enough lake, you’re probably spending plenty of time cooling off in its epilimnion—that is, its upper layer of water. Below the epilimnion is the thermocline, a region which separates the comparatively warmer epilimnion from the cold, deep water of the hypolimnion, which extends to the lake bed. The word epilimnion also has three “layers”; it squeezes the Greek word límnē (“standing water, pool, marshy lake”) between the prefix epi- and the noun suffix -ion.