Words of the Week

Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Oct. 29

Dictionary lookups from a Chinese rocket, Trump's Twitter appeal, Andrew Cuomo, and more.


Bananas, a fruitive adjective masquerading as the plural form of a noun, made a rare appearance in the category of ‘notable words’ this week, after The Wall Street Journal used it in reference to claims made by the former president of the United States.

The progressive parsons of the press are aflutter that we published a letter to the editor Thursday from former President Trump, objecting to our editorial pointing out that he lost Pennsylvania last year by 80,555 votes. We trust our readers to make up their own minds about his statement. And we think it’s news when an ex-President who may run in 2024 wrote what he did, even if (or perhaps especially if) his claims are bananas.
— Editorial Board, The Wall Street Journal, 28 Oct. 2021

This sense of bananas may be defined as synonymous with crazy. It is semantically related to, yet distinct from, such idioms as go bananas (“to become very excited or angry”) and driving one bananas (“to make someone feel stressed : to drive one crazy”).


Hypersonic was one of the words of the week, following reports that the Chinese military had fired a weapon which merited this particular adjective.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the first Pentagon official to confirm on the record the nature of a test this year by the Chinese military that the Financial Times had reported was a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon that was launched into space and orbited the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and gliding toward its target in China.
— Robert Burns, Associated Press, 28 Oct. 2021

The relevant sense of hypersonic being employed here is “of or relating to speed five or more times that of sound in air.” The word may also mean “moving, capable of moving, or utilizing air currents that move at hypersonic speed.” The latter portion of this word, sonic, has a larger variety of meanings on its own, including “of or involving sound,” “having a frequency within the audibility range of the human ear,” and, applicable to the recently fired weapon, “of, relating to, or being the speed of sound in air or about 761 miles per hour (1224 kilometers per hour) at sea level at 59°F (15°C).”

’Terms of service’

Terms of service spiked in lookups as well, after a federal judge ruled that former president Donald Trump was just as bound by such things as millions of other Twitter users.

A Florida federal judge ruled Tuesday that Donald Trump's status as a former president does not exclude him from following Twitter's terms of service, the latest setback in his quest to get back on the social media platform after being banned this year.
— Timothy Bella, The Washington Post, 28 Oct. 2021

We define terms of service as “the legal terms that set forth the nature, scope, and limits of a service (such as one offered through a website or an app) and the rules that the service's users must agree to follow.” Often abbreviated as TOS, terms of service has been in use, and unread by most people to whom they are applicable, since the mid-1990s.


Many people turned to their dictionaries to see if they perhaps misremembered the meaning of the word victim after a judge ruled that prosecutors in a high-profile case could not use this word in reference to people who had been shot by someone else.

The men shot by Kyle Rittenhouse in August 2020 can potentially be referred to at his trial as "rioters" or "looters," a Wisconsin judge said Monday while reiterating his long-held view that attorneys should not use the word “victim.”
— Jenn Selva and Kelly McCleary, CNN, 27 Oct. 2021

Victim has been in use in English since the 15th century, initially with the meaning “a living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite.” The word may be used of a number of other entities, including (but not limited to) “one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent” and “one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions.”


Misdemeanor was very much in the news at the end of the week, due to the former governor of New York State being charged with one of these.

A misdemeanor criminal complaint of forcible touching has been filed against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who faces allegations he forcibly touched a female staff member.
— Brian Mann, NPR, 28 Oct. 2021

We offer the following legal definition of misdemeanor: “a crime that carries a less severe punishment than a felony; specifically : a crime punishable by a fine and by a term of imprisonment not to be served in a penitentiary and not to exceed one year.” A felony, on the other hand, may be defined as “a crime that has a greater punishment imposed by statute than that imposed on a misdemeanor; specifically : a federal crime for which the punishment may be death or imprisonment for more than a year.” Misdemeanor may also be found used in a non-legal manner, with the broad meaning of “misdeed.”


Redline was also much mentioned recently, after Attorney General Garland announced that the Department of Justice would seek to address, and discourage, this practice.

The U.S. Department of Justice is launching a nationwide initiative to combat discriminatory lending practices, Attorney General Merrick Garland said on Friday. Garland said the illegal practice of "redlining," or avoiding lending to minority neighborhoods, remained a persistent problem, and the federal government was devoted more resources to identifying it and punishing lenders.
— Pete Schroeder, Reuters, 22 Oct. 2021

We define redline as an intransitive verb (“to withhold home-loan funds or insurance from neighborhoods considered poor economic risks”) and as a transitive one (“to discriminate against in housing or insurance”).


Meta had a late surge to the top of our lookups this week after Facebook announced that this would be its new name. Here's our longer piece on the word.

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is tax shelter, defined as “a strategy, investment, or tax code provision that reduces tax liability.” Our earliest known use had previously been in 1952, but recent findings show that we’ve had tax shelters since at least the mid-1930s.

If taxation were lowered, money would be withdrawn from the tax shelter afforded by Commonwealth securities and employed in enterprises, the profits of which would be subjected to the reduced taxes.
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, AU), 23 Feb. 1933

Investment in tax-exempt securities is an important tax shelter.
— Robert Jackson, The New York Times, 7 Aug. 1935

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