Words at Play

Of Primary Importance: Word Trends From the Campaign Trail

Our top lookups from the 2016 presidential campaign

donald trump presidential candidate 2016

Donald Trump's reluctance to disavow a white supremacist was criticized

When it spiked

February 28, 2016


During an interview, Donald Trump surprised many by refusing to repudiate his endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke—and perplexed many others by appearing to not know who Duke is, given that Duke has been prominent in politics for decades and ran for president in 1988. Press coverage and headlines noted Trump’s initial refusal to disavow the endorsement, and finally Trump tweeted: “I disavow.”

Disavow means “to refuse to acknowledge or accept” or “to deny responsibility for” and is a synonym of repudiate. It’s the negative form of avow, which means “to declare or state (something) in an open and public way”; it came to English from a French word and ultimately from the Latin root advocare, meaning “to call” or “to summon.” The literal etymological meaning of disavow is “to refuse to summon.” Another English descendant is advocate. It might seem that disavow is related to vow (“a solemn promise”), but it isn’t: the “-vow” part of disavow comes from the Latin word vox meaning “voice.”


Despite its current association with cable news and social media, the word comes from the Hindi word for "a wise or learned man."

When it spiked:

February 24, 2016


Trump's victory at the Nevada Caucuses

After Trump's win in Nevada, the word 'pundit' was used frequently in analysis of the race:

“The pundits are all wondering what happens next.” “I don’t think anybody—pundit, expert, political science Ph.D—can really figure this out.” “Any pundit who tells you otherwise is lying.”

And even in headlines:

Why Political Pundits Are Becoming More Wrong

Trump Still Presents a Neverending Conundrum for Pundits

A pundit is "a person who gives opinions in an authoritative manner usually through the mass media" or, more simply, "a critic."

Despite its current association with cable news and social media, the word comes from the Hindi word for "a wise or learned man." The same root word gave us pandit, which can also be used as an honorary title or mean specifically “an expert in Sanskrit and in the science, laws, and religion of the Hindus” or “scholar.”

hillary clinton presidential candidate 2016

"I have a bunch of litmus tests," Clinton told reporters.

When it spiked

February 4, 2016


Asked whether she would have a litmus test for potential Supreme Court justices, Clinton replied: "I have a bunch of litmus tests...I’m looking for people who understand how the real world works, who don’t have a knee-jerk reaction to support business, to support the idea that money is speech.”

The political meaning of litmus test as "a test in which a single indicator, such as an attitude, event, or fact, is decisive" is so common that it's the term's definition in our dictionary. But litmus test began as a chemistry term, and referred to the process by which a substance was determined to be alkaline or acidic. This was done by dipping a strip of litmus test paper into a solution of the thing that was being tested; the resultant change in color of the paper would inform the experimenter whether they had an alkaline or an acid.

By the middle of the 19th century we begin to find litmus test used on its own, although at this point it appears to still only be found in scientific settings, or in reference to the brewing of beer, which can be quite scientific. In the early 20th century litmus test began to be used in a figurative fashion, with the sense that it most often has today:

It became more and more apparent that this criticism was valuable only as a sort of litmus test indicator of American culture. (1927, Edwin Harold Eby, (dissertation) American Romantic Criticism, 1815 to 1850)

bernie sanders photo

Bernie Sanders describes himself as a "democratic socialist."

When it spiked

October 14, 2015—and continuously since then. Socialism has been in the top 10 lookups every day of 2016. It was our top lookup of 2015.


The first debate of Democratic presidential candidates brought intense focus on the differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a "democratic socialist."

Socialism is defined as "a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies," and democratic socialism is a form of government in which state regulation (without state ownership) is meant to ensure economic growth and a fair distribution of income. The Usage Discussion for socialism states that

In the modern era, “pure” socialism has been seen only rarely and usually briefly in a few Communist regimes. Far more common are systems of social democracy, now often referred to as “democratic socialism,” in which extensive state regulation, with limited state ownership, has been employed by democratically elected governments (as in Sweden and Denmark) in the belief that it produces a fair distribution of income without impairing economic growth.

Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA are all programs currently in place that resemble socialist policy. Socialism has been a hot-button word in American politics since the 1930s, when it was often conflated with communism. The fact that a major-party candidate for president embraces socialism suggests that the term has moved beyond its Cold War associations.


When it spiked

February 9, 2016


Lookups for evitable, the little known cousin of inevitable, increased following its use in an article in the BBC News Magazine.

The magazine wrote:

Hillary is a seasoned, pragmatic, centre-left candidate. Her nomination by the Democratic Party was supposed to be inevitable. But it turns out that "evitable" is a real word in the English language. I checked the dictionary. We should start using it. (P. J. O’Rourke, BBC News Magazine, February 9, 2016)

This this is the second time wihin a month that evitable has been in the news. It appeared in a headline to an article in The Wall Street Journal on January 24th of 2016: “Is Hillary ‘Evitable’ Again?” Journalists appear to have a strong inclination to apply the word to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as both of these candidates have seen the word applied to them in the past year on numerous occasions.

It has dawned on the Republican presidential field that Donald Trump’s inevitable self-destruction might be, gulp, evitable. (The Washington Post, August 21, 2015)

Evitable is indeed a word (it means "capable of being avoided"), and it is included in many dictionaries, although it is considerably less known than its opposite, inevitable.


We have been trying to figure the origin of the word 'caucus' since shortly after we first began using it.

When it spiked:

February 1, 2016


The Iowa Caucus

The caucus is an important part of every U.S. presidential campaign, but the word can also refer to any group of people, usually politicians, who gather together to work towards some shared goal. Despite its significance, no one is completely sure where the term comes from—but it's definitely American.

We have been trying to figure the origin of the word caucus since shortly after we first began using it. The earliest written evidence of the word is found in an advertisement in the Boston Gazette from May 5th, 1760:

And the said Committee of Tradesmen, do hereby exhort their good Friends, the Members of the old and true Corcas, who have from Time immemorial been zealously affected, to our ancient Establishment in Church and State, to behave at the ensuing Town Meeting with the usual Steadiness, and like honest Freeman to vote for WHOM THEY PLEASE.

Discerning readers will have noticed that, in the above text, the word caucus is cleverly disguised as the word corcas. One of the reasons that establishing the etymology of the word has been so difficult is that it many of the early users of it spelled it in different ways. John Adams, for instance, wrote in his diary in 1763 of having learned of meetings of the ‘Caucas Clubb’.

Probably the first person to suggest an etymology for the word was John Pickering, who in 1816 published a book titled A Vocabulary, or, Collection of Words and Phrases , Which Have Been Supposed to be Peculiar to the United States of America. Pickering made the claim that the word originated in Boston (which may well be true), and that it was a shortened and corrupted form of the phrase caulker’s meetings (caulkers were men who worked in the shipyards, water-proofing the hulls of ships). The suggestion has been reprinted in a large number of dictionaries, until well into the 20th century.

In 1872 Dr. J. H. Trumbull, an early specialist in Native American philology, suggested that the word might be derived from the Algonquin word caucauasu, which has the meaning of ‘one who advises’. This is certainly a possible explanation, except that there has been a lack of any significant evidence since 1872 which would support it. Several dictionaries have sneered at this theory.

The next explanation offered came in 1889, when the editors of the Century Dictionary suggested that the word might come from the Late Latin word caucus, a drinking vessel, “in allusion to the convivial or symposiac feature of the Caucus Club.” This is probably a sneaky way for that dictionary to say that the members of the Caucus Club were fond of drinking.

The most recent, and probably least plausible, explanation for the origin of caucus comes from 1943, in a letter sent to the journal American Speech. The letter-writer claimed to have seen evidence in the papers of John Pickering (the man who was responsible for the ‘caulker’s meeting’ etymology) that the word caucus was an acronym, based on the initial letters of the last names of six men: Cooper, Adams, Urann, Coulson, a second Urann, and Symmes. This explanation has not gained much traction.

Most dictionaries today will offer a handful of these explanations, not committing to any, or will simply say that the origin is unknown. So for the time being we can treat these theories about this word as the linguistic equivalent of the field of presidential candidates we meet at the caucuses: there are more than we need, some are better than others, and rarely do we find ourselves satisfied with any.

jimmy carter at lbj library

Carter: "Trump has proven already that he’s completely malleable"

When it spiked

February 3-4, 2016


Former president Jimmy Carter was speaking to the British Parliament when he was asked which Republican candidate he'd prefer: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.Voicing a preference for Mr. Trump, Mr. Carter explained that

Trump has proven already that he’s completely malleable. I don’t think he has any fixed opinions that he would really go to the White House and fight for.

He went on to say that he found Ted Cruz to be unmalleable: "He has far right-wing policies, in my opinion, that would be pursued aggressively if and when he would become president."

Ted Cruz jumped on the opportunity to use Carter's words against Trump, perhaps missing that Carter's comments were not an endorsement of either candidate but the articulation of what a Hobson's choice the questioner presented.

Malleable in this use means "capable of being altered or controlled by outside forces or influences." The word came into English during the 14th century and was first used to refer to metal that was able to be beaten into shape by hammers. The Latin root of malleable is malleus, "hammer," which we took wholesale to refer to one of the bones in the ear, and which also gave us the word maul.

cu amnesty gop debate

Several candidates sought to paint one or more of their opponents as being open to the idea of political amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

When it spiked

Janury 28, 2016


Amnesty spiked during the last GOP debate of January, as several candidates sought to paint one or more of their opponents as being open to the idea of political amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

Amnesty means "the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals." It comes from the Greek amnēstia, a word which means "forgotten."

However, the first sense of amnesty in English was much closer to its Greek root than to its present day meaning; when it began to be used in 1580 the word referred primarily to an intentional forgetfulness, and later took on the meaning of "official pardon." Another word in English, oblivion, has travelled a very similar path: the first meaning of oblivion was that of "forgetfulness," and it later came to have the additional meaning of "general pardon, amnesty," especially when used in the phrase "Act of oblivion."


"Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues," wrote Brooks

When it spiked

January 12, 2016


Lookups for pharisaism spiked after New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column titled "The Brutalism of Ted Cruz."

But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. Cruz’s behavior in the Haley case is almost the dictionary definition of pharisaism: an overzealous application of the letter of the law in a way that violates the spirit of the law, as well as fairness and mercy.

Readers were eager to compare Brooks's "dictionary definition" with an actual dictionary definition. Brooks is a little more expansive than the dictionary: we define this particular use of pharisaism as "pharisaical character, spirit, or attitude : self-righteousness, sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy."

Brooks's comparison between Christian virtue and pharisaism is an apt one: the attitude is named for a sect of 1st-century Judaism. Pharisees were known for their strict observation and application of the Torah as well as their oral tradition surrounding the Torah. According to the New Testament, Jesus frequently called out the Pharisees for their rigid zeal for and application of the Law that did not allow room for justice or mercy, and he set up his own teachings about faith and religion in opposition to the Pharisees' teachings. When the name of the sect was borrowed into English, speakers focused more on the supposed hypocrisy and self-righteousness of the original Pharisees rather than their neglect of justice. The connotation, however, is still there.

mano a mano trump and cruz

"Mano-a-mano" comes from the Spanish phrase that literally means “hand to hand." (Not "man against man".)

When it spiked

January 27-28, 2016


After Donald Trump announced that he would skip a GOP debate, Ted Cruz challenged him to a one-on-one “mano a mano” debate: “I’m happy to go an hour and a half mano a mano, me and Donald with no moderators any time before the Iowa caucuses.”

Mano a mano means “in direct competition or conflict especially between two people.” It comes from the Spanish phrase that literally means “hand to hand.” Some English speakers might assume that it’s an alteration of “man to man,” which makes sense from the way the phrase is used in English. (Ted Cruz is of Cuban heritage, and likely knows the Spanish origin and translation of the term.)

The term mano a mano comes from bullfighting. Usually there are six bulls and three bullfighters, or matadors in the ring; a mano a mano is a variation that is a duel between two matadors, each killing two or three bulls. (A toreador is a more generic term for “bullfighter” and may refer to members of the team assisting the matador, who has the principal role and who finally kills the bull with a sword.)

presidential flubs trump make america greatly again

The 'tycoon' was a title for the shogun, Japan's hereditary military dictator.

When it spiked:

February 24, 2016


Lookups for tycoon surged after multiple reporters used the word in their accounts of Donald Trump’s Nevada caucus victory.

The word was imported from Japan in the late 1850s, and its original meaning had very little to do with business. The Tycoon (often spelled Tykoon) was the title of the shogun, Japan's hereditary military dictator.

Tycoon is taken from the Japanese taikun, which comes from the Pekingese ta ("great") and chün ("ruler"). We begin to see it used in English around the middle of the 19th century:

On the 3d of August Her Majesty’s ships Furious, Retribution, Lee (gunboat), and steam-yacht Emperor, destined as a present for his Majesty the Tycoon of Japan, entered the port of Nagasaki, and steaming past the point at which a line of junks have heretofore been moored to bar the ingress of foreign ships, cast anchor immediately off the city and Dutch factory of Decima.
The Times [London, England], 2 November 1858

The party was escorted to the Temple of San-Shoek-Jel, the temporary residence provided for Mr. Harris and suite; but he is to be allotted a temple near to the district in which the Tykoon or Spiritual Emperor lives.
The Weekly Gazette [Vincennes, IN], 29 October 1859

The word quickly took on an extended meaning, and by the early 1860s was being used to refer to a noteworthy or important person. By the early 20th century it had become synonymous with magnate, the sense in which it is overwhelmingly used today.


“No more pussyfooting around!”

When it spiked

January 20, 2016


Pussyfoot spiked following Sarah Palin’s use of the word in her endorsement of Donald Trump for president. Praising the candidate, Palin exclaimed “No more pussyfooting around!” Her choice of words was well suited to pussyfoot’s linguistic history, as the term began its life as a political term.

The earliest variant of pussyfoot comes in the late 19th century, in an adjectival form: pussyfooted.

It was the intriguers and compromisers, and soft-spoken, pussy-footed Union-savers who did most to bring on the war. (New York Tribune, November 14, 1879)

By the early 20th century the word has expanded somewhat, and was being used as a noun and as a verb. Again, almost all of the recorded uses of pussyfoot at this point were political.

The trouble with him, however, is that he doesn’t recognize the necessity of the whisper and the pussy-foot in politics. (The Decatur Herald, March 4, 1903)

Pussyfoot may have started its life as political jargon, but it has since moved well into the mainstream of American speech (as when John Updike, in Rabbit is Rich, wrote “So what’s he pussy-footing around whispering to his mother and grandmother now for?”) It still has connotations of dithering or indecisiveness, however, which make it well suited to be used in a campaign of any sort.


The meaning of 'evangelical' has changed

When it spiked

January 20, 2016


After Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump's candidacy, lookups for evangelical increased dramatically. Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, described the effect that Sarah Palin’s endorsement might have on Trump’s political fortunes:

Palin’s brand among evangelicals is as gold as the faucets in Trump Tower…. Endorsements alone don’t guarantee victory, but Palin’s embrace of Trump may turn the fight over the evangelical vote into a war for the soul of the party.

Reed was using evangelical as a noun and an adjective, both of which have existed in English since the 16th century.

Both uses have seen their meanings shift and expand over the past four hundred years, due to the vicissitudes of religious faith and politics. The sense of evangelical being used when discussing the modern political climate is difficult to pinpoint, as the meaning of evangelicalism even in 20th century America has changed, and may mean different things to different people. But it generally is used today to refer to Protestant members of one of a number of denominations, particularly those members who underwent a conversion experience and have a strong inclination to spread their faith.

The "evangelical vote" is a fairly recent turn of phrase, with current evidence suggesting that it began to enter our parlance in the mid-1970s.

Most notable, of course, has been the discovery of Jimmy Carter’s evangelical faith, which has sent reporters scurrying for theological books and prompted political analysts to dissect the “evangelical vote.” (The Evening Star, June 13, 1976)

chris christie presidential candidate 2016

Chris Christie called Barack Obama a "petulant child" during a GOP debate

When it Spiked

January 14, 2016


Petulant, used in the phrase "petulant child," jumped to the top of the list of most-searched words during the Republican debate of January 14th, after Chris Christie used the phrase to describe President Barack Obama.

Petulant comes from a Middle French word meaning "impudent." It began to be used in English at the end of the 16th century, and originally meant "wanton or immodest in speech or behavior." It soon took on the sense of "insolent" or "rude." In the middle of the 18th century petulant took on the meaning most frequently seen today: "ill-humor" or "peevishness."

We have been referring to petulant children for quite some time now. Richard Baxter’s 1673 book, A Christian Directory, is one of the earliest such uses of the phrase:

He is a wretch indeed that will take his food as from his Fathers hand, and throw it in his face, though perhaps a petulant child would do so by a fellow-servant.

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