Words of the Week

The Good, The Bad, & The Semantically Imprecise - 11/8/19

Some of the words that defined the week of November 8, 2019

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).


Stay tuned for an epiphany.

'Quid pro quo'

As the impeachment investigation proceeds, quid pro quo ("something given or received for something else") continues its reign atop our list of lookups. Some Democratic politicians have called for a cessation of use of this Latin term, arguing that other words (such as extortion) are more apt. And perhaps some are just sick of seeing the same words repeated again and again. For those who are interested in some fresh quid words, we’ve got an excellent selection, and none of them have anything to do with politics, or corruption.

There is quiddany, “a jelly or syrup made from fruit (as quinces),” and quiddle, “a fussy or fastidious person.” For the more cerebral readers, we have quiddity, “whatever makes something the type that it is,” and quidditative, “of, relating to, or constituting the essential nature of something.” And for those readers who prefer words that are odd and difficult to use in everyday conversation, we have quidder: “a horse that drops food from its mouth.”


Speaking of extortion, this word has been attracting more attention than it usually does outside of a courtroom, with people across the political spectrum trying it out and finding that it works with the point they are trying to get across.

The Israeli leader spoke hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, while visiting Europe, accused Iran of “nuclear extortion” by having accelerated its ability to develop a nuclear weapon in a shortened time frame.
— David M. Halbfinger and Richard Pérez-Peña, The New York Times, 7 Nov. 2019

Incredibly, Trump’s spinners are now trying to argue that Sondland suddenly freelanced that last piece of the plot — the extortion piece — entirely on his own.
— Greg Sargent, The Washington Post, 7 Nov. 2019

Extortion, which comes from the Latin extorquēre (“to wrench out”), is here used to mean “the act or practice of extorting especially money or other property”; extort may be defined as “to obtain from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or illegal power.” One who extorts another is an extorter, and the adjectival forms of the word are extortive (“of, relating to, or using extortion") and extortionate (“characterized by extortion; excessive, exorbitant").


Testimony (“a solemn declaration usually made orally by a witness under oath in response to interrogation by a lawyer or authorized public official“) was on the minds of many this week, as a number of current and former members of the Trump administration and state department provided testimony (or, in some cases, declined to do so) before the House committee conducting its impeachment inquiry. The word comes from the Latin testis, meaning “witness”; testimony shares its etymology with a number of other English words, including contest and detest, both of which come in part from testari (“to call to witness”).


Reports that Joe Biden had predicted that an epiphany would be visited upon a number of Republican politicians after Donald Trump had left office caused that word to have a rare non-January spike.

The earliest meaning of epiphany is “January 6 observed as a church festival in commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles or in the Eastern Church in commemoration of the baptism of Christ,” and every year in early January the word sees a dramatic increase in lookups. The sense intended by Biden was likely “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.” Biden’s epiphany is spelled with a lower case initial letter; the sense pertaining to the Magi is capitalized.

Our Antedating of the Week: 'anonym'

A good deal of attention is being lavished on a forthcoming book, A Warning, said to have been written by an anonymous senior official in Donald Trump’s administration. Which makes this a fine time to remind our readers of the word anonym, which may be defined either as “a pseudonym” or as “an anonymous person.” The word is our antedating of the week; previously our earliest record for anonym had come in 1793, but recent findings show the word in use as far back as 1696, when it was used, appropriately enough, by an anonym.

Odhinus, the Authour of MO-CHRI MA, call'd so amongst his Freinds, but set out under the Name of his Labyrinths; as also by that Spawn of his lately set out by an Anonym, who wrote Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius; which by the way, is not, as, some would have it to be, falsly so call'd, but truely….
— Anon., Hagnelion jechidatho ruahh turak Jehovah ehhad. Or, Eye-salve, recommended to the world in a short essay, 1696

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