Words of the Week

The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise - 8/31

The words that defined the week of August 31st, 2018

Welcome to The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise, in which we look over some of the words that tickled your curiosity this past week. Please note that the word bad is used here in a semantically vague fashion; we do not really think of any words as bad (although sometimes they are a bit unruly).

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For our Antedating of the Week, we found a new earliest use of the word 'obnoxious.'

A large amount of media coverage was focused on Puerto Rico this past week, as the estimate of the island's death toll from Hurricane Maria was adjusted from 64 to 2,975. It has come to our attention that there exists among a small group of people some confusion as to the status of Puerto Rico (and Puerto Ricans) in terms of the island's relation to the United States.

We define Puerto Rico as "an island in the West Indies east of Hispaniola; a self-governing commonwealth in union with the U.S." Commonwealth is a word with several shades of meaning; in this case it refers to "a political unit having local autonomy but voluntarily united with the U.S." Puerto Rico is a part of the United States; it is a territory, rather than a state. If living in Puerto Rico individuals may not vote in presidential elections, but if residing in any of the 50 states they may. Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States.

Black holes had a moment in the sun this week, as people luxuriated in the gruesome possibility that our planet might one day be sucked into the ravening maw of one, provided that two sets of gravitational waves proved unable to get out of each other's way.

Gravitational Waves Could Collide Sucking Earth Into a Black Hole
— (headline) Newsweek, 30 Aug. 2018

In technical use a black hole is "a celestial object that has a gravitational field so strong that light cannot escape it and that is believed to be created especially in the collapse of a very massive star." For most people figurative uses of the word (such as the job which inexorably leeches the joy from your existence) tend to be more relevant in everyday life.

The death of Arizona Senator John McCain caused a number of words to spike in lookups. Some, such as maverick, came as no surprise, as McCain had often been described with this word. The sense applied to the senator is "an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party."

Before maverick described independent individuals it had the meaning of "an unbranded range animal; especially a motherless calf." The word comes from Samuel A. Maverick, a 19th century lawyer and politician who, although not a cattle rancher, ended up with some 400 of the animals, taken as payment for a debt. Maverick neglected to brand any identifying marks on the cattle, and many were soon taken by other ranchers who branded them as their own.

It did not take long for maverick to take on its figurative meaning, and by the 1880s the word was already being used in conjunction with words such as political. It should be noted that although the use of maverick in relation to McCain was almost always intended in a laudatory way, in the 19th century it appears to have had a somewhat disapproving tone.

He represents no political principle and yet would seek the support of those who are bound by party obligations to emphasize their principles by their votes. He is a political maverick fit only to be slaughtered at the general roundup of parties for the common good.
The Butte Miner (Butte, MT), 1 May 1883

Another, less predictable, lookup which spiked from coverage of McCain was ditat Deus, which is Latin for "God enriches," and is the state motto of Arizona.

His widow and other family members, friends and Arizona leaders watched silently as members of the Arizona National Guard carried the casket into the Capitol rotunda, stopping on a mosaic of the Arizona state seal: a shield featuring the motto Ditat Deus (“God enriches” in Latin) flanked by images honoring mining, ranching, farming, scenery and Roosevelt Dam – nods to the five Cs of the state McCain called home for nearly four decades.
— Chris McCrory, Crinkite News (cronkitenews.azpbs.org), 29 Aug. 2018

A number of other states have decided to fancy themselves up with a Latin motto. Michigan went with si quaeris peninsulam amoenam, circumspice ("if you seek a beautiful peninsula, look around"), and Missouri chose salus populi suprema lex esto ("let the welfare of the people be the supreme law"). Not all states take Latin phrases as mottoes; Maryland made the somewhat questionable choice of the Italian fatti maschi, parole femmine ("deeds are males, words are females").

A concerned reader tagged us on Twitter, disappointed that we do not define the word foo in its modern technological sense. Foo is often found as a generic name for a variable in programming documentation. If that doesn't make much sense to you, worry not, as our earliest citation for the word, from 1977, will clear everything up.

There is a special symbol: "NIL", which is synonymous with the list containing no items: "()". For example: (foo bar 123 123.45e-12 (deep down) NIL) is a list of 6 items, the first two of which are symbols, the third an integer, the fourth a floating point number, the fifth a list of two symbols and the sixth the empty list.
— Paul Edward Rutter, Improving Programs by Source-to-Source Transformation (PhD diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), 1977

Although the etymology of foo has not been thoroughly examined, the fact that it is typically found in close proximity to bar lends credence to the theory that it is intended as a jocular and abbreviated form of the acronym fubar. One might refer to this as jargonistic humor.

For our antedating of the week we turn to the realm of the obnoxious. In fact, we turn to obnoxious itself. Until recently our earliest evidence for this word was from 1597. This week, however, we found a brace of uses from the middle of the 16th century.

How he hath also done in the interpretation of that place, in the first epistle to ye Corinthians the xiiij. chap. which we obiected against Latomus, & other oure aduersaries which go about to addict the faithe of Gods people to the Pope of Rome, and his obnoxious counsailes, let other geue iudgement, for bicause this saing of the Apostle may be vnderstande by ye other prophetes only though it be no necessitie....
— Martin Bucer, The Gratulation of the Mooste Famous Clerke M. Martin Bucer, 1549

So that by the assertions of the Heathen it maye appeare that the office of a King is no paynelesse Prouince, but altogether obnoxious to the trauailes of bodye, and the troubles of mind.
— Anthony Rush, A President for a Prince, 1566

The careful reader (reader is intentionally used in the singular here, since we are fairly certain almost no one reads old citations) may have noted that the uses of obnoxious are a bit peculiar, particularly the one about the Pope's "obnoxious counsailes" (councils). This is because the initial sense of the word, now considered archaic, was "liable to harm," rather than "liable to make me want to poke you in the eye."

Now, when faced with some exemplar of obnoxiousness who uses this word you may confidently one-up them by giving a potted version of this word's history. For what is more obnoxious (in a modern sense) than giving an answer to a question that no one asked?



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