The Words of the Week - Sept. 23

Dictionary lookups from the law, chess, and podcasting
girls sitting at a table eating cake


Serial was a word in numerous headlines last week, after a man—who had been the subject of an investigation by a podcast of this name—was set free from prison.

Adnan Syed, Subject of ‘Serial,’ Is Released From Prison
— (headline) Smithsonian Magazine, 22 Sept. 2022

Serial has a number of meanings as a noun; the one most applicable to this podcast title is likely “a work appearing (as in a magazine or on television) in parts at intervals.” The word appeared in English, first as an adjective, in the beginning of the 19th century, with a number of meanings that all related to the word series (such as “of, relating to, consisting of, or arranged in a series, rank, or row”). Series itself comes from the Latin serere, meaning “to join, link together.”


Last week also saw the occurrence of the Autumnal equinox, which this year fell on September 22nd.

The Autumnal equinox, which always falls between Sept. 21 and Sept. 24, is one of two equinoxes. The other, known as the Vernal equinox or March equinox, occurs each year between March 19 and March 21 and marks the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.
— Robert Lea,, 22 Sept. 2022

We define equinox as “either of the two times each year (as about March 21 and September 23) when the sun crosses the equator and day and night are everywhere on earth of approximately equal length.” The word matches its etymology nicely, as it comes from aequus, the Latin word for "equal" or "even," and nox, the Latin word for “night.” The autumnal equinox marks the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere and occurs when the sun crosses the equator going south. In contrast, a solstice is either of the two moments in the year when the sun's apparent path is farthest north or south from the equator.


Conscription spiked in lookups, after Russia announced that it was calling hundreds of thousands of men into military service.

Though Mr. Putin officially called up only reservists, saying that only men with military experience would receive orders to report for duty, many worried that the government would impose new travel restrictions on conscription-aged men and wanted to make a quick escape just in case.
— Ben Hubbard, The New York Times, 22 Sept. 2022

Conscription is ”compulsory enrollment of persons especially for military service.” It has a somewhat more literary origin than one might imagine for a word with such a militaristic meaning: conscript can be traced to the Latin word conscribere (“to enroll or enlist”), which itself comes from from scribere, meaning “to write.”


Fraud also appeared in many headlines last week, after the New York Attorney General held a press conference and announced that her office was filing a civil suit against Donald Trump (and others) for allegedly having committed this.

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday sued former President Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, three of his adult children and others for allegedly widespread fraud involving years’ worth of false financial statements related to the company’s business.
— Dan Mangan and Kevin Breuninger, CNBC, 21 Sept. 2022

Fraud has a range of general meanings, such as “deceit,” “an act of deceiving or misrepresenting,” or "a person who is not what he or she pretends to be.” In addition, the word has a specific legal sense, which is “a misrepresentation or concealment with reference to some fact material to a transaction that is made with knowledge of its falsity or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity and with the intent to deceive another and that is reasonably relied on by the other who is injured thereby.”

’Have one’s cake and eat it too’

Also trending as a result of Trump’s legal issues was have one’s cake and eat it too.

Special master tells Trump team: ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it’
— (headline) The Hill, 20 Sept. 2022

Have one’s cake and eat it too is an idiom, defined as "to have or enjoy the good parts of something without having or dealing with the bad parts.” It has been in use in some form in English for close to 500 years, appearing in a 1546 book of proverbs by John Heywood (“Wolde ye bothe eate your cake, and haue your cake?”)

The English language is particularly rich in cake-related idioms and noun phrases. There are a number of other well known examples in current use, such as take the cake (typically used to describe something that is very surprising, foolish, remarkable, annoying, etc.) or piece of cake (referring to something easily done). However many cake expressions we have in use today, it pales in comparison to the number that our language used to have, most of which are no longer in use. Jame Howell’s 1659 book Paroimiographia Proverbs contains the following commonly used cake-based expressions:

- His cake is become dough, or his nose is put out of joynt.
- One may safely lend a Cake to one that hath a Pastie in the Oven.
- He would eat his cake, and find his cake in his pocket.
- We have already eaten our boyes cakes.
- Marriage is not made of Mushromes, but of good round Cakes.
- There is no cake, but there is the like of the same make.

(You can try to bring back any of these proverbs that catch your fancy, but we aren’t entirely certain what they all mean, so please use them with caution.)

Words worth knowing: ’Zugzwang’

There has recently been no small amount of drama in the world of chess, after a champion player, Magnus Carleson, withdrew from a match in a tournament, amidst speculation that his opponent had been cheating. And so our word worth knowing this week is zugzwang, defined as "the necessity of moving in chess when it is to one's disadvantage.” While zugzwang originated in the world of chess (and is still primarily used in reference to that game) we are beginning to see increased evidence of this word used in an extended fashion, referring to a non-chess situation in which a person or party can only make moves which cause difficulties.

Any chess player would have recognised that India was in a perfect Zugzwang — Delhi had no option but to respond, but any move to counter Pakistan would make the situation worse.
Indian Express (Mumbai, Ind.), 31 May 2022