The Words of the Week - Feb. 17

Dictionary lookups from the worlds of railroads and automobiles, law, and from newspaper style guides
ufo spaceship hovering over a desert road with puffy clouds

’UFO’ & ‘UAP’

UFO and UAP both had a busy week, after a number of curious objects were seen in the sky.

How a Fog of Questions Over a Spy Balloon and U.F.O.s Fed a Diplomatic Crisis
— (headline) The New York Times, 15 Feb. 2023

UFO is, as most of you doubtless know, an initialism for unidentified flying object. Less common (but becoming more common recently) is UAP, which may stand for either unidentified aerial phenomena or unidentified anomalous phenomena. This abbreviation has been in use since 1963; you can read more about it here.

Satellites, manned orbital flights and other earthling ventures into out space seem to have evaporated general interest in the so-called “Unidentified Flying Objects” (UFO’s), or, as the Air Force prefers to label them, “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” otherwise known as UAP.
New York Herald Tribune (Paris, Fr.), 3-4 Aug. 1963


Recall was in the news last week, after Tesla announced that they were doing just this with several hundred thousand of their vehicles.

On Thursday Tesla had to issue a recall for nearly 363,000 of its electric vehicles. At issue is the company's highly controversial "Full Self Driving" Beta, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes is dangerous.
— Jonathan M. Gitlin, Ars Technica, 16 Feb. 2023

In the above example recall (used as a noun) is defined as “a public call by a manufacturer for the return of a product that may be defective or contaminated.” The word has a number of other meanings, including “a call to return” (as of employees returning to work), “the right or procedure by which an official may be removed by vote of the people,” and “remembrance of what has been learned or experienced.” The last few times this word has spiked in lookups it has been as a result of efforts to unseat a political figure from an office to which they were elected.


Amnesty also spiked in lookups, following reports that the massive death toll from the recent earthquake in Turkey was due in part to the granting of amnesty to construction companies in recent years, in which they were allowed to avoid meeting certain safety regulations.

Duvar cited a senior Istanbul city official, Bugra Gokce, who gave a breakdown of the tens of thousands of building amnesty certificates granted before the 2018 general election in 10 provinces struck by the earthquake. They included more than 40,000 amnesty certificates in the hard-hit Gaziantep province, the official said. The amnesty meant that some builders had to pay a fine but their construction projects could go forward if they didn't meet code restrictions, according to Turkish media reports.
— Peter Kenyon, NPR, 13 Feb. 2023

We define amnesty as “a decision that a group of people will not be punished or that a group of prisoners will be allowed to go free.” The word can be traced to the Greek amnēstós, meaning "forgotten, forgetful.” When amnesty first came into use in English (in the late 16th century), it had a meaning that was closer to its Greek root than to its present day meaning: it initially referred to an intentional forgetfulness.

’Train wreck’ & ‘Derailment’

A number of trains have gone off their rails in the past week or so, and considerable attention has been given to the words train wreck and derail.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on Wednesday said the company whose train derailed in eastern Ohio and sent up a plume of toxic chemicals needs to stick around to deal with the aftermath of the disaster. “They are responsible for this. They are responsible for a very serious train wreck that occurred with some very toxic material,” DeWine said on CNN’s “This Morning.”
— Kelly Hoper, Politico, 15 Feb. 2023\

Both train wreck and derail began their lives in the middle of the 19th century with extremely literal meanings: the earliest sense of train wreck_ is “a violent and destructive crash involving a train,” and that of derail is “to cause to run off the rails.” Each has taken on figurative senses since then, with train wreck now often carrying the meaning of “an utter disaster or mess; a disastrous calamity or source of trouble,” and derail meaning such as “to obstruct the progress of” or “to upset the stability or composure of.”


Perjury spiked in lookups as well, something that happens whenever there is news of a high-profile instance of this.

A Georgia grand jury that examined interference in the 2020 election found no evidence of fraud as repeatedly claimed by former President Donald Trump and recommended perjury charges for unnamed witnesses who are suspected of lying under oath, according to a heavily redacted portion of the panel's final report released Thursday.
— Kevin Johnson, Bart Jansen & Ella Lee, USA Today, 16 Feb. 2023

Perjury has a relatively simple meaning: “the crime of telling a lie in a court of law after promising to tell the truth; false swearing.” The latter portion of this word comes from the Latin jurare, meaning “to swear.” The beginning portion of the word, the prefix per-, has a number of possible meanings, but in this case means “detrimentally, for the worse.” If you know someone who has committed perjury multiple times, and want to know the plural, it’s perjuries; a person who is guilty of perjury is a perjurer. Note: not all lying is perjury: only that done under oath, as in a court of law.


Data was also in the news, after a well-known publication announced that they had amended their stylebook, and would henceforth be using this word as a singular noun, rather than as a plural one.

Some people find the use of singular data offensive, and would prefer that it always be plural, as it is in Latin, the language from which we borrowed it (the singular being datum). We enter several meanings for data (such as “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation”), and note for all of them that it is plural in form but singular or plural in construction. We describe the word as sometimes being singular because, well, the data shows that this is how many people use it.

Words Worth Knowing: ‘Leucocholy’

Our word worth knowing this week is leucocholy, defined as “a state of feeling that accompanies preoccupation with trivial and insipid diversions.” This word is presented for your amusement, and is not a condemnation of trivial or insipid diversions, of which we ourselves have many.