The Words of the Week - 1/1/21

Some of the words that defined the week ending January 1, 2021

Happy New Year!


Cusp was a word much in the news last week, as it appeared that we were suddenly on the cusp of many things (the new year, a bad new phase in the pandemic, a historic vote, etc.).

Argentina on the cusp of historic vote to legalise abortion
— (headline) Al-Jazeera, 29 Dec. 2020

With hospitals on cusp of ‘crisis care,’ LA County reports 227 coronavirus deaths in one day
— (headline) Los Angeles Daily News, 29 Dec. 2020

High-impact snowstorm slamming Plains on cusp of new year
— (headline), 28 Dec. 2020

In English use since the late 16th century, cusp comes from the Latin word cuspis, meaning “point.” The word is today most often encountered with meanings such as “a point of transition (as from one historical period to the next); a turning point,” or “edge; verge.” However, cusp has a variety of additional meanings, including “ either horn of a crescent moon,” “a fixed point on a mathematical curve at which a point tracing the curve would exactly reverse its direction of motion,” and “a point on the grinding surface of a tooth.”

’Twenty-twenty hindsight'

Twenty-twenty hindsight spiked in lookups quite a bit over the course of the last week, perhaps because people were interested in any dictionary entry that might one feel more optimistic about the coming year. We define this word as “the full knowledge and complete understanding that one has about an event only after it has happened.” This idiom is also sometimes rendered as 20/20 hindsight, and comes from the use of twenty-twenty, the optical measurement of the human eye that means “meeting a standard of normal visual acuity,” or, more generally, “marked by facilely accurate discernment, judgment, or assessment.”

Twenty-twenty (and 20/20) has been in use since about 1875; the combination of this designation with the word hindsight does not appear to have taken off until the second half of the 20th century. It was, for the first decade or so of use, more common to see 20-20 hindsight, but by the 1960s people were referring to hindsight as being twenty-twenty.

”A lot of people at this time have 20-20 (perfect) vision in their hindsight,” he said.
Daily Boston Globe, 26 Jul. 1950

He also knows that a lot of other people have 20-20 vision to their hindsight.
— Dave Shanks, The Austin Statesman (Austin, TX), 22 Jun. 1951

With the twenty-twenty vision in diplomatic hindsight which all of us possess, we will be able to tell in due time whether, in the case of Laos, we have traveled too fast and too far along the road of concessions to the Communists.
— J. William Robinson, Western Political Quarterly, 1 Mar. 1962

First, the man who had stood well apart from day-to-day pressures could capitalize on the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight.
Harper’s Magazine, 1 May 1962


Sclerotic pushed its way into the news last week, after the word was featured prominently in an article in The Atlantic.

Four years ago, Trump created a coalition that was more blue-collar and less white than the GOP vote in previous elections by combining an anti-immigration and protectionist message with a call to dismantle the sclerotic and corrupt bureaucracy.
— Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, 29 Dec. 2020

Sclerotic may be traced to the Greek word sklēroun (“to harden”), and has a number of technical meanings; these include the medical sense “of, relating to, or affected with sclerosis (“pathological hardening of tissue especially from overgrowth of fibrous tissue or increase in interstitial tissue”) and “being or relating to the sclera” (“the dense fibrous opaque white outer coat enclosing the eyeball except the part covered by the cornea”). As used above, however, the meaning is more of a figurative one: “grown rigid or unresponsive especially with age : unable or reluctant to adapt or compromise.”


Override stampeded to near the top of our lookups, following an example of this word by a political body in Congress.

The House of Representatives took a pair of votes Monday night with mixed results for the President: Conservatives joined Democrats in voting to increase coronavirus stimulus checks, but they also joined forces to override his veto of the massive defense spending bill, a solid rebuke and sign of his waning power.
— Zachary B. Wolf, CNN, 29 Dec. 2020

Override has been in use in English for a very long time, well before there was a president in the United States, or a Congress to override this president. The earliest sense, “to ride over or across; to trample,” existed before the 12th century. There are numerous other meanings of override (such as “to ride (an animal, such as a horse) too much or too hard”) that have also been in use for hundreds of years.

For a Horse that is Overridden. Wash his mouth with Vinegar and Salt, and hee will feed againe.
— William Poole, The countrey farrier, 1650

The sense that is relevant to recent congressional developments is not restricted to political use; we simply define it as “to set aside; to annul.”

Our Antedating of the Week: ’vaccinee’

Our antedating of the week is vaccinee, a word that is not much in use, but one that we hope will soon be far more common. We define vaccinee as “a vaccinated individual,” and our earliest known use had previously come in 1889. Recent findings show that the word was being applied to those that had been vaccinated almost three decades earlier.

General average number of prescriptions dispensed to each patient, (excluding vaccinees—12,667=121,751 patients,) in 1859, 2.15.
American Medical Gazette, Nov. 1860