The Words of the Week - July 21

Dictionary lookups from tennis, politics, and the law
crazed looking man with tennis racket

‘Target letter’

Target letter appeared in numerous headlines and newspaper articles, after Donald Trump avowed that he had received one of these from Jack Smith.

Trump Says He Received Target Letter in Jack Smith’s Jan. 6 Case
— (headline) The Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2023

A target letter is defined as “a letter from a U.S. attorney stating that the person to whom the letter is sent is a target in a federal grand jury investigation.” The word target here is used in a fairly precise legal manner, one that we define as “(in US law) a person against whom a federal prosecutor has substantial evidence of involvement in criminal activity and who the prosecutor believes is likely to be indicted by a grand jury.” Our earliest evidence of use for target letter comes from 1975.

For the governor, the formal notification from Finney was the most ominous development yet in the almost three-year-old political corruption probe. Legal sources have stressed repeatedly in the past that such “target” letters are sent only after the federal prosecutors are convinced they have a strong case against the potential defendant.
— Edward Walsh, The Washington Post, 26 Sept. 1975


Legacy spiked in lookups, after Wesleyan announced it would soon end admissions of this type.

New England liberal arts college Wesleyan University has ended legacy admissions in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down race-based affirmative action.
— Teddy Grant & Arthur Jones II, ABC News, 19 July 2023

The relevant sense of legacy here is “a candidate for membership in an organization (such as a school or fraternal order) who is given special status because of a familial relationship to a member.” The word has a number of additional meanings, including as a noun (“the lasting influence of a person or thing”) and as an adjective (“of, relating to, associated with, or carried over from an earlier time, technology, business, etc.”). Legacy can be traced to the Latin word legare, meaning “to send as a deputy.”


Anti-vax was also in the news a good deal last week, after a member of a famous political family (who is widely known for his skepticism regarding vaccines) testified before Congress.

‘I Have Never Been Anti-Vax,’ Says Lead Anti-Vaxxer RFK Jr
— (headline) Rolling Stone, 20 July 2023

We have a fairly simple definition for anti-vax (also occasionally written as a closed compound, antivax), which is “opposed to vaccination.” The word has been in written use since the late 19th century. The word for a person who is opposed to vaccination is anti-vaxxer (also found as antivaxxer, anti-vaxer, and antivaxer). A person who has been vaccinated is a vaccinee.


Meshuggener had a somewhat improbable spike in lookups as well, after it was used by a writer for a British newspaper, in covering the final men’s match of the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

Djokovic looked finished except he’s never finished, the Rasputin of tennis, and an error from Alcaraz means he has three set points. The first is saved but the second yields a double, and after three hours and 54 minutes, we and they have to suffer through the decider we and they deserve. I am in absolute awe of these two meshuggners, I cannot wait to see what happens next and I’ve not the slightest clue as to what’s coming next. These are the days of our lives, people.
— Daniel Harris, The Guardian (London), 16 July 2023

A meshuggener is “a foolish or eccentric person”; the word is typically used of people more imbalanced than one finds on the Wimbledon courts. The word came to English directly from Yiddish, and, as is often the case with words we’ve borrowed from that language there is no agreement on spelling; variations include meschugener, meshugener, mishugeneh, and many others. Meshuggener has been in use in English as a noun and adjective since the end of the 19th century; the similar meshuga (“foolish, eccentric”) preceded it by several decades.

The articles referring to the position of wives among the old Hebrews, especially that from the able pen of “Raphael,” have undoubtedly been read by many of our readers with great interest, but if my old rabbi had seen these articles he would certainly have declared that generation meshuga ...
The Jewish Messenger (New York, NY), 1 Dec. 1876

Words Worth Knowing: ‘Desiderium’

This week’s word worth knowing is desiderium, defined as “an ardent desire or longing; especially, a feeling of loss or grief for something lost.” If you have such feelings for multiple things that you’ve lost, and need to know the plural, it is desideria.