Words of the Week

The Words of the Week - 9/11/20

Some of the words that defined the week ending September 11, 2020

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

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Before we go any further, here are some flowers.


Meander was in the news last week, after an official with President Trump’s re-election campaign used the word to describe the path of Joe Biden, when the former Vice-President was visiting the grave of his son.

In a tweet Sunday from the account of Francis Brennan, the Trump campaign's Director of Strategic Response, said Biden was "meandering along" instead of talking to reporters during a Sunday morning visit to attend mass at the St. Joseph on the Brandywine Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware.
— Tom Porter, Business Insider, 7 Sept. 2020

We define meander as “to follow a winding or intricate course” or “to wander aimlessly or casually without urgent destination.” The word has a riverine etymology, as it may be traced to the Greek name for a river, Maiandros (now called Menderes), found in Asia Minor.


Liar was among our top lookups last week, after President Trump spelled the word with an e, rather than an a.

“Fredo’s got a convicted lier for a lawyer,” Trump wrote, misspelling “liar” and using an anti-Italian slur to refer to Chris Cuomo. The lawyer he refers to is Michael Cohen, Trump’s estranged former fixer who is not Chris Cuomo’s attorney.
— Dave Goldiner, New York Daily News, 8 Sept. 2020

We differentiate between liar (“a person who tells lies”) and lier (“one that lies, as in ambush”). While there are many examples in literature of “a person who tells lies” being rendered as lier (especially before English spelling got its act together), the commonly accepted spelling today is liar.

Now that this is a corruption among you, your selves haue taught saying and complayning that in the Church are swarmes of Atheists, Idolaters, Papists erroneus and hereticall sectaries, witches, charmers, sorcerers, murtherers, theeves, adulterers, liers, &c.
— Henry Ainsworth, Counterpoyson, 1642

'Strenuous' and 'downplay'

Bob Woodward’s soon to be published book on Trump also caused a considerable stir last week, in particular a series of interviews in which Trump talked about the coronavirus pandemic. Words such as strenuous and downplay rose in lookups as a result.

President Donald Trump admitted he knew weeks before the first confirmed US coronavirus death that the virus was dangerous, airborne, highly contagious and "more deadly than even your strenuous flus," and that he repeatedly played it down publicly, according to legendary journalist Bob Woodward in his new book “Rage.”
— Jamie Gangel, Jeremy Herb, and Elizabeth Stuart, CNN, 9 Sept. 2020

Trump knew the coronavirus was 'deadly stuff' but chose to downplay it, according to recordings revealed in new Woodward book
— (headline) USA Today, 9 Sept. 2020

Strenuous is not a word that often modifies ailments such as the flu. We define the word in the following ways: “vigorously active,” “fervent, zealous” (as in strenuous supporters), or “marked by or calling for energy or stamina; arduous.” The word comes from the Latin strenuus, meaning “active, strenuous,” and has been in use since the 16th century.

Downplay is considerably more recent an addition to our language, dating from the middle of the 20th century. We define downplay as synonymous with de-emphasize, or play down: “to attach little importance to.”


Articulate attracted some attention last week, after a number of people used this word to describe Vice-President candidate Kamala Harris.

After Joe Biden announced that he had selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, Bernie Sanders praised her in an interview on MSNBC: “I will tell you that Kamala is very smart, very aggressive,” he said. And then he delivered the inevitable, racialized compliment that makes many African-Americans cringe: “very articulate.”
— H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, The New York Times, 8 Sept. 2020

The sense of articulate given above is defined as “expressing oneself readily, clearly, and effectively.” The issue with this use of the word is that it has often been used, by white people, to refer to Black people, in a manner that ranges from dismissive to patronizing. The use of this descriptor appears to presuppose that articulateness is not the normal state of affairs. Employing articulate evinces surprise that a Black person has refined language, and such an exception bears noting.

This is an issue that is not new; it’s been well-documented and observed for decades and there are a large number of people who will find this use of articulate off-putting. If the answer to “do I want to potentially offend a large number of people with my word choice?” is “No,” then you would do well to choose a different word when describing the speech of someone who is Black.

Our Antedating of the Week: 'soft-pedal'

Our antedating of the week is soft-pedal, defined as “to play down, de-emphasize.” The word has existed as a noun (meaning “a foot pedal on a piano that reduces the volume of sound”) since the early 19th century, but our earliest known use of the verb had been from 1912. Recent findings show that we’ve been soft-pedaling since at least 1900.

You will have to admit, Mr. Schurz, that you have soft pedaled the secretary’s note of alarm rather hastily and that you have overlooked most important facts that should have had your more careful attention before settling that facile pen of yours to paper.
The Brooklyn Eagle (Brooklyn, NY), 7 Sept. 1900

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