Words of the Week

Merriam-Webster's Words of the Week - Dec. 31

Dictionary lookups from Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve, the Ghislaine Maxwell trial, and new COVID-19 guidance.


Kwanzaa spiked in lookups last week, as it does every year just after Christmas.

'Kwanzaa is necessary': The holiday celebrating African American culture presses on virtually, again
USA Today, 27 Dec. 2021

We define Kwanzaa as “an African American cultural festival held from December 26 to January 1.” Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, who took the Swahili word kwanza (“first fruits”) and added an A to the end. Among the initial celebrants of Kwanzaa were seven children, and the additional A allowed each child to have their own letter.

’Majority leader’

Majority leader was in the news more than it usually is, after Harry Reid, former Democratic senator and one-time holder of this position, passed away.

Former U.S. Senate majority leader Harry Reid dies at 82
— (headline) Reuters, 29 Dec. 2021

We define majority leader as “a leader of the majority party in a legislative body (such as the U.S. Senate).” The word has been in use (mostly found in relation to politics in the United States) since the 19th century.

The National Intelligencer remarks upon the adroit manner in which the majority leaders of the two Houses of Congress manipulate certain ticklish questions, which, if left untouched, or which, if pushed too far, might affect the chances of party success in the next elections.
The Baltimore Sun, 17 Jul. 1866


Asymptomatic was much in use last week, as school districts, various businesses, and government entities all struggled to deal with the latest Covid-19 variant.

Asymptomatic may be defined as “having or showing no symptoms of disease.” The word it comes from, symptomatic, has a wider range of possible meanings, including “being a symptom of a disease,” “having the characteristics of a particular disease but arising from another cause,” “concerned with, affecting, or having symptoms,” or “characteristic, indicative.”


A large number of people found themselves disagreeing with the BBC's choice of words, when the broadcaster referred to Alan Dershowitz as impartial, as the lawyer commented on the case of the recently convicted Ghislaine Maxwell.

The BBC has admitted Alan Dershowitz should not have been interviewed as an "impartial analyst" on the Ghislaine Maxwell verdict given his own ties to the allegations.
— Brendan Morrow, The Week, 30 Dec. 2021

Impartial is defined as “not partial or biased : treating or affecting all equally.” Partial, on the other hand, may be defined as “inclined to favor one party more than the other.” Given that Dershowitz represented Maxwell’s former partner Jeffrey Epstein, and has himself been accused of sexual assault by one of Epstein’s alleged victims, many felt that partial would have been a more appropriate descriptor than impartial.


Isolation is once again a common word, as the Center for Disease Control has recently changed their recommendation for how long people with Covid-19 should remain in this state.

The newest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance shortening the isolation period for those with COVID-19 from 10 days to five days has led to a growing concern about its impact on essential workers such as nurses and airline staff. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the decision to change the guidelines was, in part, to "keep the critical functions of society open and operating.”
— Deepa Shivaram, NPR, 29 Dec. 2021

Isolation, defined as “the state of being in a place or situation that is separate from others; the condition of being isolated,” can be traced to the  Latin insula, meaning “island” (and yes, plague victims were once sequestered on an island). Isolation and quarantine are distinguished in current use by medical professionals: isolation is used for the separation of ill people with a communicable disease from healthy people, and quarantine is used to describe the restricted movement of healthy people who have been exposed to communicable disease, in order to assess whether they become ill.

’Auld lang syne’

Auld lang syne will probably trend in lookups this coming week, as innumerable people end up singing along to the song of this name. Auld lang syne comes from Scots, in which it has the literal meaning of “old long ago”; we define it as “the good old times.” The lyrics of the song, traditionally sung at the onset of the new year, are often attributed to the poet Robert Burns, who said he’d taken it from an earlier source. Auld lang syne can be found in use as far back as the 17th century; lang and syne may be found used in conjunction as far back as the 16th.

The good God said, Jonah, now billy Jonah, wilt thou go to Nineveh for ald lang syne; The Deel be on my feet then said Jonah: O Jonah said the good God, be not ill natured, they are my people.
— Jacob Curate, The Scotch Presbyterian eloquence, or, The foolishness of their teaching discovered from their books, sermons and prayers and some remarks on Mr. Rule's late Vindication of the kirk, 1692

In eirth lang syne yair had bene nothing than, Saif only vice and malice manifest.
— Robert Sempill, The polysonit schot, 1570]]

Our Antedating of the Week

Our antedating of the week is annus horribilis, defined as “a disastrous or unfortunate year.” This choice is apropos of absolutely nothing at all. Annus horribilis comes to English straight from New Latin, in which it has the literal meaning of “horrible year.” Our earliest known use had previously come in 1890, but recent findings show that we’ve been having anni horribiles (and now you know the correct plural, in case you want to really alienate people at a New Years party this year) since at least the 1860s.

The old year, which went out on Monday night in a shroud of white, suggestive of what may happen to any of us before the year is over, has been heartily abused. He is described as a sort of Annus Horribilis.
The Westmorland Gazette (Kendal, Eng.), 5 Jan. 1867

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