The Words of the Week - September 2

Dictionary lookups from tennis, international politics, and the law
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’Special master’

Special master trended sharply in lookups, after the judge presiding over the case involving the retrieval of presidential materials from Donald Trump’s residence indicated that she might appoint such a person to oversee the items recovered.

Federal judge puts off ruling on Trump's request for a special master but elects to unseal additional records related to Mar-a-Lago search
— (headline) Business Insider, 1 Sept. 2022

We define special master as “an officer of the court appointed (as under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 53) to assist a judge in a particular case by hearing and reporting on the case, sometimes by making findings of fact and conclusions of law, and by performing various related functions.” Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a master may be a magistrate or else may be a person with some special expertise in the matter. The word master as used in the Federal Rules encompasses a referee, an auditor, an examiner, and an assessor. If the master makes findings of fact, they are reviewable de novo (meaning they are reviewed over again) by the court except when the parties have stipulated that the findings will be reviewed for clear error or that the master's findings are to be final.


Mikhail Gorbachev, the former President of the Soviet Union, passed away last week, and as a result the word legacy was in much wider use than it usually is.

A peaceful yet radical social transformer: Mikhail Gorbachev leaves a blazing legacy
— (headline) The Guardian (London, Eng.), 31 Aug. 2022

We offer a number of definitions of legacy; the one that is most germane on this occasion is “the lasting influence of a person or thing.” Other meanings of the word include “the lasting influence of a person or thing,” “the lasting influence of a person or thing,” and “the office, dignity, or function of a legate.” A legate is “an emissary usually having official status (as an ambassador, delegate, or envoy).” Legacy can be traced to the Latin word legare, meaning “to send as a deputy.”


Serena Williams defeated Anett Kontaveit, the second-seeded player, at the US Open tennis tournament, causing a spike in the use (and lookups) of the word quadragenarian.

Playing the 1,013th match of her storied career in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she first prevailed as a beaded teenager in 1999, Williams was in vintage form, even as a quadragenarian looking very much like a title-contender.
— Richard Osborn,, 31 Aug. 2022

Quadragenarian is defined as “a person who is 40 or more and less than 50 years old”; Williams turns 41 later this month. Here are some other slightly obscure words for people of a certain age:

Quinquagenarian: “a person who is fifty years old.”
Sexagenarian: “a person whose age is in the sixties.”
Septuagenarian: “a person whose age is in the seventies."
Octogenarian: “a person whose age is in the eighties.”
Nonagenarian: “a person whose age is in the nineties.”
Centenarian: “one that is 100 years old or older.”


There was a definite undercurrent of defenestration felt last week, following news reports that a Russian oil executive had fallen to his death from a window, in circumstances that many felt were suspicious.

Ravil Maganov, the chairman of Russia's second-largest oil producer Lukoil, died on Thursday after falling from a hospital window in Moscow, two sources familiar with the situation said, becoming the latest in a series of businessmen to meet with sudden unexplained deaths.
Reuters, 1 Sept. 2022

Defenestration may be defined in literal fashion (“a throwing of a person or thing out of a window”) or somewhat more metaphorically (“a usually swift dismissal or expulsion, as from a political party or office”). The verb is defenestrate (“to throw someone or something out a window”). These words both come from the Latin fenestra, meaning “window,” which also serves as the origin of the English word fenestrated (“provided with or characterized by windows”). The most famous defenestration in history occurred on May 23, 1618, when two imperial regents were found guilty of violating certain guarantees of religious freedom and were thrown out the window of Prague Castle. Both men survived.

Words Worth Knowing: ‘Scrimshank’

Our word worth knowing this week is scrimshank, defined as “to shirk one's work or obligations.” The word is of uncertain origin, has been around since the late 19th century (mostly in British use), and occasionally is used as a noun as well (to refer to a person who shirks their duties).

But there were such people in the world as malingerers—who were called in the army “scrimshanks.”
Western Gazette (Yeovil, Eng.), 2 Jun. 1882