The Words of the Week - 5/21/21

Some of the words that defined the week ending May 21, 2021
meadow in morning sunlight

Another busy week for English

’Bathing suit’

An article in The Washington Post, featuring quotes from a decade-old interview Joe Biden did with _Car and Driver, brought attention to bear on the President’s use of bathing suit. Some people seemed to find Biden’s use of this word, as opposed to swimsuit anachronistic.

JB: [Laughing] You think I’d drive a Trans Am? I have been in my bathing suit in my driveway and not only washed my Goodwood-green 1967 Corvette but also simonized it.  At least the Onion should have had me washing a Trans Am convertible. I love convertibles.
Car and Driver, 6 Sept. 2011

We define bathing suit as “swimsuit,” because the words are largely interchangeable. It is true that bathing suit is the older of the two (in use since the middle of the 19th century, while the hip new word swimsuit only came into use in the 1920s), but the older word is not yet considered archaic or obsolete.


A number of people in their late thirties and early forties took to various forms of social media last week, to express discomfiture over a recent article that had used the word geriatric to describe them.

Now those born in the generational black hole between 1980 and 1985 have a new name: We are "geriatric millennials.”
— Mark Serrels, CNET, 19 May 2021

When used as an adjective_, as above, geriatric carries such meanings as “of or relating to geriatrics or the process of aging,” “of, relating to, or appropriate for elderly people,” and “old and outmoded.” The noun (geriatrics) was introduced by the Austrian-born U.S. physician Ignatz Leo Nascher (1863-1944) New York Journal of Medicine in 1909, and is defined as “a branch of medicine that deals with the problems and diseases of old age and the medical care and treatment of aging people.”


Gaslight trended in lookups last week, after actor Drew Barrymore stated that she had been gaslit.

Drew Barrymore Was “Gaslit” Into Working With Woody Allen, She Tells Dylan Farrow
— (headline) Vanity Fair, 18 May 2021

Gaslight has a number of unsurprising senses as a noun, such as “light made by burning illuminating gas,” “a gas flame,” and “a gas lighting fixture.” The definition of the verb, however, appears at first glance to not be closely related: “to attempt to make (someone) believe that he or she is going insane (as by subjecting that person to a series of experiences that have no rational explanation).” This meaning comes from the 1938 play Gas Light, written by Patrick Hamilton (subsequently turned into a number of movies), in which a man attempts to trick his wife into believing that she is going insane.


Tenure was much-discussed last week, after Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied this.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The New York Times Magazine, was denied a tenured position at the University of North Carolina after the university’s board of trustees took the highly unusual step of failing to approve the journalism department’s recommendation.
— Katie Robertson, The New York Times, 20 May 2021

Tenure can be traced back to the Latin tenere, meaning “to hold,” and in Middle English had the meaning of “possession of land under obligation to a superior, the land so held.” We define the word as “the act, right, manner, or term of holding something (such as a landed property, a position, or an office)” noting that it is especially used to mean “a status granted after a trial period to a teacher that gives protection from summary dismissal.”


Emasculated was in the news last week, after a senator issued a claim that the advertisements for the United States Army were deserving of this word.

Sen. Ted Cruz slams ‘Emasculated’ U.S. military depicted in Army ad campaign
— (headline) Houston Chronicle, 20 May 2021

As an adjective emasculated means “deprived of or lacking virility, strength, or vigor,” and has been in use since the late 17th century. The verb, emasculate, appeared earlier in that century, and has meanings such as “to weaken,” and “to castrate.”

A Prince of Germany who was emasculated by a Cannon bullet, made that member of silver, and with that he got many children.
— Joannes Jonstonus, An history of the wonderful things of nature set forth in ten severall classes, 1657


Cease-fire was featured prominently in many headlines and articles, after it was announced that such a noun had been effected between Israel and Hamas.

President Joe Biden hailed a ceasefire reached between Israel and Hamas fighters on Thursday and said the United States would help Gaza with humanitarian relief aid.
Reuters, 20 May 2021

Cease-fire came into use in the middle of the 19th century, initially with the meaning of “a military order to cease firing.” It now refers also to “a suspension of active hostilities.”

Our Antedating of the Week: ’nativism’

Our antedating of the week is nativism, defined as either “a policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants” or “the revival or perpetuation of an indigenous culture especially in opposition to acculturation." Our earliest known use of this word had previously come from 1844, but recent findings show that we have been nativistic since at least 1840.

But let any of them aspire to an office of profit, which depends upon the aid of their suffrages, and we shall then see the covert but cowardly repetition of Democratic “Nativism” as practiced in Southwark by the 815 professed Democrats and supporters of Mr. Van Buren, who voted for James Gregory for coroner—and for what?
Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), 22 Feb. 1840