Words of the Week

The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise - 11/30/18

The words that defined the week of November 30th, 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).

words that trended the week of november 30 2018

Without further ado, here are some words about words.


Asylum was a notable word this past week, as it appeared in numerous media accounts of the migrants from Central and South America who are currently seeking asylum at the southern border of the US.

Can they do that? Trump administration fires tear gas, starts wait list for migrants seeking asylum
— (headline) ABC News (abcnews.go.com), 29 Nov. 2018

Asylum has several meanings, some of which are general and broad (“a place of retreat and security”) and some of which are fairly specific (“protection from arrest and extradition given especially to political refugees by a nation or by an embassy or other agency enjoying freedom from what is required by law for most people”). The specific sense is the one being used in the stories mentioned above. The word may be traced back to the Greek asylos, meaning “inviolable.


Bum-rush also received attention in regard to the border when Fox News personality Tomi Lahren used it in a tweet to describe the asylum-seekers' actions.

Occasionally, one of our esteemed colleagues will show a preference for one sense of a word (usually an older one) rather than another. Such was the case when Benjamin Dreyer, Random House’s chief copy editor, expressed displeasure with this modern take on the word.

The most recent sense of bum-rush originated in the 1980s, and was greatly popularized by the 1987 Public Enemy album Yo! Bum Rush the Show. The earlier sense of the verb, “to forcibly eject, or propel someone in a specific direction” (as well as the noun form), has been in use for over a hundred years.

We don’t know why they bum-rushed us,
-We’re flabbergasted quite;
It seems that darn-fool referee
Expected us to fight.
— Pittsburgh Daily Post, 14 May 1915

If one would start to say anything about ill-treatment, his visitor would be ushered out of the visiting room and when the visitor was out of sight. said prisoner would be given the “bum rush” to his cell.
— Pittsburgh Courier, 16 Jun. 1923

The studio executives bum-rushed her out of the place and barred her from the lot.
— Daily News (New York, NY), 2 Aug. 1931

Smoking gun

Smoking gun was widely reported in stories about comments by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said that this metaphorical idiom was not to be found tying the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to Mohammed bin Salman.

Mattis told reporters Wednesday that there is "no smoking gun" implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of the Washington Post columnist last month, saying that he has personally reviewed the intelligence that has been collected.
The Week (theweek.com), 28 Nov. 2018

A smoking gun is “something that serves as conclusive evidence or proof (as of a crime or scientific theory).” The word began to be used in a figurative manner in the early 1970s; prior to this it was not uncommon to see recently-fired pistols described thusly in a literal manner (the gun that has recently been fired will occasionally still have smoke emanating from its barrel).


General Motor’s announcement this past week that it was shuttering five of its automotive plants, and the unconventional word they chose to describe the state of these plants in the future, led many people to look up the word unallocated (CBS News’s Moneywatch asked in a headline if unallocated was the “Worst corporate euphemism ever?”). Unallocated is defined as “not apportioned or distributed for a specific purpose,” and typically is used in conjunction with funds more than it is with factories.

The automaker did not say the plants would close, but used the term “unallocated,” which means no future products would be allocated to these facilities next year.
Toronto Sun, 26 Nov. 2018

"Everyone at Oshawa, Lordstown, and Detroit-Hamtramck should have been worried (as should workers at all other one-shift plants at all automakers) — even if they didn't know the 'unallocated' announcement was coming this week," Dziczek said.
Detroit Free Press, 29 Nov. 2018

And now ... our Antedating of the Week!

For our antedating of the week we are returning to the events visited upon the migrants seeking the aforementioned asylum, as earlier this week border patrol agents in the US fired tear gas at the asylum-seekers. We define tear gas as “a solid, liquid, or gaseous substance that on dispersion in the atmosphere irritates mucous membranes resulting especially in blinding of the eyes with tears and is used chiefly in dispelling mobs.” Our earliest known record for this word had previously occurred in 1916. Recent findings show that it was in use the year prior. Some antedatings are larger than others.

In most of the cases under his observation the men’s eyes were affected with hand grenades and suffering from the effects of “tear gas.”
The Montgomery Times (Montgomery, AL), 9 Oct. 1915

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