The Words of the Week - 5/7/2021

Some of the words that defined the week ending May 7, 2021
garden path with tulips

Hello allergens, my old friends


Intersectionality spiked in lookups last week, after the Central Intelligence Agency released a promotional video with a narrator who self-described with the adjectival form of this word.

Some wags on Twitter are referring to the video as “Woke James Bond.” The narrative presents a Latina woman — and employee of the Central Intelligence Agency — with two children, describing herself as a “cisgender Millennial,” a “woman of color,” “intersectional,” and also suffering from generalized anxiety disorder.
— Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg, 5 May, 2021

We define intersectionality as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups” and intersectional as “of or relating to intersectionality." Both of these words have others senses (such as “of or relating to an intersection”) that have been in use for hundreds of years; the sense employed by the CIA is of considerably more recent vintage, having been coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989.

While Crenshaw initially applied the word to the ways that sexism and racism combine and overlap, intersectionality has come to include other forms of discrimination as well, such as those based on class, sexuality, and ability.


Wide angle was also high in lookups last week, following the release of a photograph in which the current occupants of the White House appeared to have turned previous occupants of the White House into puppets.

Wide-angle is defined as “having or covering an angle of view wider than the ordinary” and is used especially of lenses of shorter than normal focal length (wide-angle lens itself is defined as "a camera lens that is used to take pictures that show a wider view than other lenses"). The word angle may be traced back to the Latin angulus "two lines extending from the same point, corner, nook.” It can be traced even further back to the Indo-European *h2eng-lo-*h2eng-elo-, for those who really want to liven up the conversation at the next dinner party they attend.

’Herd immunity’

Herd immunity was featured prominently in many news stories last week, after a number of scientists announced that the United States was unlikely to achieve this particular thing anytime soon.

For many months, members of the public have equated a return to “normal life” with the phrase “herd immunity”: that threshold reached when the Covid-19 pandemic would be boxed in by immunization campaigns, find no new hosts and society would return to a 2019-style normal. However, many scientists and experts have also warned for months that the US will not reach this threshold this year, or perhaps even next.
— Jessica Glenza, The Guardian, 5 May 2021

Herd immunity is “a reduction in the risk of infection with a specific communicable disease (such as measles or influenza) that occurs when a significant proportion of the population has become immune to infection (as because of previous exposure or vaccination) so that susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals.” The word’s history is quite self-explanatory: it was initially applied to herds of immunized animals, rather than to people (although herd can be applied to people, in senses such as “a group of people usually having a common bond” and “the undistinguished masses”).


Uphold saw its use increase last week, after Facebook announced that it was continuing its ban on allowing Donald Trump to post on its site.

Trump's Facebook ban upheld by Oversight Board
— (headline) NBC News, 5 May 2021

As a transitive verb uphold may mean “to give support to,” “to support against an opponent,” or “to lift up.” The last time uphold was this high in lookups was back in 2018, after the Supreme Court upheld a travel ban enacted by President Donald Trump.


Waiver was also high in lookups for much of the week, after the administration of President Biden announced that it was in support of waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

Waiver comes from the Anglo-French weyver, which in turn is from the Old North French, meaning “to abandon.” We define this topical sense of waiver as “the act of intentionally relinquishing or abandoning a known right, claim, or privilege.” The word has another meaning, most particular to sports than to medicine: “the act of a club's waiving the right to claim a professional ball player who is being removed from another club's roster —often used in the phrase on waivers denoting the process by which a player to be removed from a roster is made available to other clubs.” Waiver has been in use in English since the middle fo the 16th century.

…but if she be not found wife in the office, the heire may sue his liuerie without anie such sauinge and to saie the the kinge by making such a liuerie should waiue the aduantage of his prerogatife in the dower: that semes not to bee trew vnles the said waiuer were by expres wordes, wherfore it semes the heir in that case after liuerie is not bound to yeld vnto her dower….
— William Staunford, An exposicion of the kinges prerogatiue, 1567

Our Antedating of the Week: ’herd immunity’

The antedating of the week is the aforementioned herd immunity. Our earliest known use of this word had previously come from the year 1917, but recent findings show that we’ve been referring to immunizing large groups in this manner since the late 19th century.

These facts show something besides individual immunity. They demonstrate the possibility of obtaining herd immunity.
Proceedings of the Thirtieth Annual Convention of the United States Veterinary Medical Association, 1894