Words of the Week - May 13

Dictionary lookups from the economy, the Supreme Court, and golf

Searches for 'inflation' have gone up this week.

’Beef up’

Beef up was found in many newspaper headlines last week, following reports that security had been increased at the Supreme Court and at the residences of a number of its justices.

A spokesperson for the USCP said the agency “beefed up security” out of an abundance of caution earlier this week, but that USCP is not responsible for erecting the fence and directed DCist/WAMU to the Supreme Court Police.
— Colleen Grablick, DCist, 6 May 2022

We define beef up as “to add weight, strength, or power to (something),” and note that it is informal. The word appears to have come into use in the late 19th century, and for a number of decades it occupied semantically fluid terrain, with meanings that ranged from “defeat” to “thrash,” and from “gain weight” to “intoxicate.”

Beefer John of the Oberlin baseball nine, beefed up the boys a new dose to the tune of 13 to 6 at the match game.
The Atwood Patriot (Atwood, KS), 13 Jun. 1890

On sight of the police Melle took to his heels. Dalbey stayed and tried to explain when some one hit him a terriffic (sic) belt over the head, and beefed him up considerably before the police could interfere.
The Richmond Item (Richmond, IN), 8 May 1891

It serves Irvin Cobb right for not watching his calories and getting all beefed up.
The Wilmington Dispatch (Wilmington, NC), 26 Feb. 1918

That’s how us editors used to get estimates on the crowds at big picnics. We’d hunt around until we found some old experienced picnicer who was all beefed up and ask him how many (hic) people there were present.
The Jay Record (Jay, OK), 21 Jun. 1922

By the 1930s beef up began to settle down, and took on its now-common sense of “strengthen.”

”These wing spars will have to be beefed up a whole lot. Why don’t we make a strut braced job out of this with folding wings,” etc., etc.
The Gaffney Ledger (Gaffney, SC), 1 Mar. 1932


Many people were also talking or writing about formula, as a shortage of such for babies continued.

The owner of a key baby formula manufacturing plant said Wednesday it is looking to restart its plant in as little as two weeks — but said it would take between six to eight weeks to get formula products back on store shelves once production gets going again.
— Rob Wile, NBC News, 11 May 2022

The sense of formula relevant here is “a milk mixture or substitute for feeding an infant”; the word has a number of other meanings, including “a general fact, rule, or principle expressed in usually mathematical symbols,” “recipe,” and “a set form of words for use in a ceremony or ritual” (its earliest meaning in English, dating from the beginning of the 17th century).


Bald had a somewhat rare moment of enjoying the spotlight, following news reports from England that a tribunal there had ruled that the use of this word could constitute sexual harassment.

Calling man ‘bald’ is sexual harassment, employment tribunal rules - Ruling made by panel of three men who bemoaned their own lack of hair
— (headline) The Independent (London, Eng.), 12 May 2022

We define bald, when used of a person, as “having no hair or very little hair on the head.” Bald, when followed by faced, is often found in the company of lie; a bald-faced lie is an untruth of striking and unabashed boldness. If you need to describe such a lie, and now are concerned that bald-faced may be harassing you may instead say that it is a barefaced lie (while this use is older it is significantly less common than bald-faced).

’Gaffe’ & ‘Mistake’

What was described as a gaffe by a golfer sent many people to the dictionary to see if their personal understanding of the word mistake might be in error, and if it includes “murdering a journalist who one disagrees with.”

‘We’ve all made mistakes’ – Greg Norman’s gaffe over killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
— (headline) The Times (London, Eng.), 11 May 2022

Our entry for mistake includes the following, non-murderous, definitions: “to be wrong,” “to identify wrongly,” “to blunder in the choice of,” and “to misinterpret.” Gaffe, which also does not typically include “murdering a journalist” among its meanings, may be defined as either “a social or diplomatic blunder” or “a noticeable mistake.”


Inflation was also very much in the news last week, as the U.S. continued to see exceedingly high levels of this.

Fresh data from the U.S. government on Wednesday showed that inflation was still climbing at a rapid pace, prompting President Biden to say that controlling the rising prices was his “top domestic priority.”
The New York Times, 12 May 2022

We define this sense of inflation as “a continuing rise in the general price level usually attributed to an increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods and services.” The word’s initial meaning, one that is still very much in use, was “an act of inflating or a state of being inflated.” The word may be traced in part to the Latin flare (meaning “to blow”), a root it shares with a number of other English words, including afflatus and flatulent.

Words Worth Knowing: ‘Vitativeness’

Our word worth knowing this week is vitativeness, defined as “love of life.” Vitativeness has fallen out of use, so much so that the last work of ours that included this word was the Second Edition of our Unabridged Dictionary, published in 1934. We hope that you have a lovely enough weekend that this word comes to mind often.