The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise - 3/29/19

The words that defined the week of March 29th, 2019

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

words of the week march 29 2019

Stay tuned: This week, we found a new earliest use of 'escalate.'

Mueller words

Last week saw continued interest in a number of words featured in the reports on the report by special counsel Robert Mueller, including declination, comprehensive, and exonerate.

This is the importance of the so-called Mueller report, which Barr described Friday as “a ‘confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions’ he has reached, as required by 28 C.F.R. § 600.8(c).”
— Benjamin Wittes, Lawfare Blog (, 23 Mar. 2019

Then Barr, Rosenstein and their top advisers settled in to review what one DOJ official describes as a “comprehensive” report and to draft a letter to Congress outlining Mueller’s principal findings.
— Tessa Berenson, Time (, 28 Mar. 2019

Declination has a number of a possible meanings, including “a turning aside or swerving,” “deterioration,” and “angular distance north or south from the celestial equator measured along a great circle passing through the celestial poles.” In all likelihood, the sense most applicable to Mueller’s decision is “a formal refusal.” We define comprehensive as either “covering completely or broadly” or “having or exhibiting wide mental grasp.”

Super PAC

Super PAC was on the minds of many people last week after Tucker Carlson alleged that CNN was in fact an exemplar of this kind of political organization.

Presented without comment (honest) is our definition of super pac: “a type of political action committee that is legally permitted to raise and spend larger amounts of money than the amounts allowed for a conventional PAC. Specifically : an independent PAC that can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and organizations (such as corporations and labor unions) and spend unlimited amounts in support of a candidate but that cannot directly contribute money to or work directly in concert with the candidate it is supporting.” The definition we offer for CNN is simply the full form of this abbreviation, Cable News Network, and we leave it to you to decide the extent to which the latter is an example of the former.


Coup also attracted a good deal of attention in the world of political news, as stories the world over (or at least in the UK, Brazil, and the United States) used the word. The word has two possible meanings: it may refer to “a brilliant, sudden, and usually highly successful stroke or act” (not the sense relevant to most of the political stories of the past week), or it may function as a shortened form of coup d’état (“a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics”). The term comes to English from French, in which language it has the literal meaning of “stroke of state.”

Our Antedating of the Week: escalate

For our antedating of the week we turn to the word escalate, because … well, because someone is always trying to escalate something or other, and it is therefore useful to know a bit of the history of this word.

Escalate, which is today mainly used in the sense of “to increase in extent, volume, number, amount, intensity, or scope” initially had the meaning of “ to ascend on or as if on a moving staircase or conveyor belt” (the word is a back-formation from escalator). The earliest use of escalate was “ to ascend on or as if on a moving staircase or conveyor belt,” a sense we previously had evidence of from the early 1920s. This sense has been in use since 1910.

Like the donkey, the escalator is impatient, but also like the donkey it will balk. An observer is unable to tell whether it is trained or not, but when six or eight attempt to escalate at once, it goes on strike.
The Boston Globe, 25 Dec. 1910

Figurative use of escalate (first referring to a physical object ascending in space, followed by the ascension of a incorporeal thing) was thought to have originated in 1944; recent findings show that the word has been put to this use since 1914

A garden plot Gustavus made
And excavated with a spade
A trench both wide and deep, and laid
Brown bulbs and seeds therein.
”The vegetables and the flower,
Wisteria and luscious sauer— “Kraut plant, in one fraternal bower
Shall escalate and spin.”
The Boston Globe, 14 Aug. 1914

With live pork escalating beyond the $17 mark, nothing short of a limousine can be trusted to “bring home the bacon.”
Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), 16 Aug. 1917