The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise - 12/27/19

Some of the words that defined the week of December 27, 2019

Welcome to The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise, in which we look over some of the words that tickled your curiosity over the past week. Please note that the word bad is used here in a semantically vague fashion; we do not really think of any of these words as bad (although sometimes they are a bit unruly).


May your Scrabble grudge matches be merry and bright.

Scrabble words

Christmas may be a time of religious observance, or a chance to exchange gifts with loved ones, or to practice atheistic acts of good will; it is also a time to visit one’s childhood home, and to water the familial garden of acrimony by playing a vicious game of Scrabble. We know this (or suspect it) due to a marked increase every holiday season in a number of 2-letter words, the kinds of words one might try to play in a bitter game of Scrabble with relatives who challenge one’s wordy dominance. Here, in no particular order, are some of the more obscure specimens that we saw looked up on Christmas this year:

Za (“pizza”)
Jo (“sweetheart, dear”)
Yo (“used especially to call attention, to indicate attentiveness, or to express affirmation”)
Xi (“the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet”)
Qu (“question”)
Fa (“the fourth note of the major scale in solfège")
Ki and qi (both are variant spellings of chi (“vital energy that is held to animate the body internally”)


But Christmas isn’t just a time for fighting with family members about whether za may properly exist on a Scrabble board; it is also a fine time for arguing with the aforementioned family members about whether gift may be wielded as a verb (“to make a gift of”), and whether regift is a word at all. In case any of you are still arguing about this matter, we provide entries for both of these; if you would like to read more on this you may do so here.


Each year of late has seen a linguistic curiosity mixed with the holiday season: searches for the word slumgullion spike throughout the month of December. The increased rate of lookups coincides with broadcasts of the 1947 film It Happened on Fifth Avenue. This movie features a character reminiscing of his former wife, a wife who apparently “made the finest slumgullion in the whole state”).

We define slumgullion as “a meat stew,” although the word had a number of additional meanings in its early use in the middle of the 19th century. It could refer to drink (usually of low quality), to nonsense, or to one of several unpleasant things (such as a slurry of liquids one would prefer to not think about overmuch).

Slumgullion Bar is the last name that has been concocted for a mining locality in California.
New London Daily Star (New London, CT), 15 Apr. 1853

It matters not whether he climbs the mountains in search of acorns, or descends to the valleys for grab-worms and grass-hoppers—whether he makes his bed under the broad-spreading oak, or takes his siesta in slumgullion.
Monmouth Democrat (Monmouth, NJ), 14 Jun. 1855

The Californian’s condensed reviewer furnishes several fresh specimens of Sage Brush poesy which contain “no hog-wash or purp-stuff,” but “the real Helicon unmixed with Slumgullion.”
The Daily Dramatic Chronicle(San Francisco, CA), 4 Jan. 1866

Our Antedating of the Week: 'holier-than-thou'

Our antedating of the week is the adjective holier-than-thou, “marked by an air of superior piety or morality.” Our earliest record of use had previously come in 1859, but recent findings show that we have been holier-than-thou-ish since at least 1836.

Since which he has set up for “a holier than thou man,” and no doubt succeeds with many in passing off his sanctimonious exterior for rectitude of conduct and uprightness of principle.
The Morning Post (London, Eng.), 26 Jun. 1835