Here at Merriam-Webster, we keep track of how often various words in our online dictionary get looked up. Some words are always popular—love, for example, is always a top lookup, for reasons that are understandable if not logical, and a few of the words in our daily list of top lookups have been there for months. At other times, though, a word's definition will undergo a sudden, sharp spike in popularity as a result of something in the zeitgeist, such as a shared experience or event. These are the words that have trended during the election so far.
Trending Words from Election 2016
Why Do Words Trend?
Definition: Worthless nonsense
When it trended: March 3rd, 2016
Lookups for trumpery have been spiking periodically since the end of 2015, as a result of the burgeoning political fortunes of Donald Trump. Recently, people have begun posting trumpery definitions to various social media sites. This fairly obscure word has a decidedly negative set of meanings which have delighted the real estate mogul’s detractors.
Samuel Johnson, in his great dictionary of 1755, assigned three senses to trumpery, none of which were terribly appealing:
(1) Something fallaciously splendid; something of less value than it seems
(2) Falsehood, empty talk
(3) Something of no value; trifles
Earlier in the 18th century, Nathan Bailey gave a slightly more concise definition in his Dictionarium Bratannicum: “Trash, sorry, pitiful, paultry Stuff.”
Trumpery has been in use in English since the late 15th century, and has been used, at one time or another, to refer to weeds, people (especially women of doubtful character), religious matters (especially those that are superstitious in nature), and generally worthless things in a broad sense.
While those opposed to Donald Trump may quote Samuel Johnson’s secondary definition of trumpery ("something of less value than it seems"), those in favor of him have pointed out that the word trump itself carries such favorable meanings as "a dependable and exemplary person" and "a decisive overriding factor or final resource."
Definition: To use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone
When it trended: April 14, 2016
At the Democratic debate, in an energetic exchange on the minimum wage during which both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders raised their voices, Sanders wrapped up his argument by saying: “I think we need to be clear and not equivocate: $15 in all fifty states as soon as possible.” In the heat of the moment and in the context of heated rhetoric, his pronunciation of equivocate was slightly garbled.
Equivocate means “to use unclear language especially to deceive or mislead someone.”
The word comes from the Late Latin word aequivocus, which means "to call by the same name." It has been used as a verb in English since 1590, in the sense of "to use equivocal language especially with intent to deceive."
A few decades after this initial appearance the word took on an additional sense, presumably the one that was intended by Senator Sanders. There have been a few others senses of equivocate, most of which are now quite obscure (such as when Randle Cotgrave used it in his 1611 French/English dictionary to mean "having the same sound as another word."
In other words, to equivocate is to engage in a highly specific type of lying.
Definition: Opposed to someone or something in a very angry or determined way that cannot be changed
When it trended: April 14, 2016
In response to Bernie Sanders's statement that the recent Paris climate change agreement was not a concrete accomplishment—“We have to get beyond paper right now”—Hillary Clinton argued that the agreement creates
...the framework to actually take the action that would have only come about because under the Obama administration in the face of implacable hostility from the Republicans in Congress President Obama moved forward on gas mileage, he moved forward on the clean power plant.
Implacable means “opposed to someone or something in a very angry or determined way that cannot be changed.”
Implacable comes to English from the French word of the same spelling; the French took it from the Latin implacabilis ("unappeasable, irreconcilable"). It shares its roots with placate, and has been in our language since the 15th century.
Implacable may also be used in reference to something that is inexorable, as when Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his novel The Defense, "By an implacable repetition of moves it was leading once more to that same passion which would destroy the dream of life."
The "angry opposition" sense of the word is perhaps more common today.
Definition: Based on probability or presumption
When it trended: May 4th and June 7th, 2016
Lookups for presumptive spiked 504% on May 4th, following a decisive victory by Donald Trump in the Indiana primary the day prior.
Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee following a decisive victory in the Indiana primary and the decision by Ted Cruz to drop out of the race.
—CNN Politics, 4 May, 2016
Billionaire Donald Trump assumed the mantle of presumptive Republican presidential nominee on Wednesday with a mixed message on party unity and a clearer one for his next likely target, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
—Reuters, 4 May, 2016
(the above tweet was later deleted.)
Presumptive is not a particularly recent addition to the English language; it has been in consistent use since the 15th century. The word comes from the Latin praesumptus (which is the past participle of praesumere, "to anticipate, suppose, take in advance"), and the earliest recorded sense in which it was used is one that still has considerable currency today: "based on probability or presumption."
The word spiked again on June 7th, this time in reference to Hillary Clinton.
Definition: Marked by or given to offhand and often disdainful dismissal of important matters
When it trended: May 26th, 2016
Cavalier spiked in lookups on May 26th, following Barack Obama's statement that leaders of other countries were concerned by Donald Trump.
“They are not sure how seriously to take some of his pronouncements but they’re rattled by him, and for good reason,” Obama said. “A lot of the proposals that he has made display either ignorance of world affairs or a cavalier attitude or an interest in getting tweets and headlines instead of actually thinking through what it is required to keep America safe.”
Christi Parsons, The Los Angeles Times, 26 May 2016
Cavalier can function as a verb, adjective, or noun in English (the latter two parts of speech are the more common ones), and has been in regular use since the 16th century. The earliest sense in which the noun was used, according to our records, was to refer to a raised fortified structure. It also has had the meaning of “a gentleman trained in arms” since at least the end of the 16th century.
Although the first sense in which cavalier was used as an adjective is "debonair” it also quickly took on connotations of insouciance, the sense in which President Obama appears to have used it recently. In other words, he was suggesting that Trump's proposals were "marked by or given to offhand and often disdainful dismissal of important matters."
Definition: A leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power
When it trended: May 31, 2016
Lookups for demagogue increased 9000% over the hourly average after Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous scientists in the world, stated that he was unable to explain Trump's success in the Republican presidential primaries:
I can’t. He is a demagogue, who seems to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Demagogue means “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” It comes from the Greek word meaning “popular leader” and originally had the positive connotation of “a leader in ancient times who championed the cause of the common people.” The first known use of the word in English comes from the introduction to Thomas Hobbes's 1629 translation of a text by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides:
It need not be doubted, but from such a Master, Thucydides was sufficiently qualified, to have become a great Demagogue, and of great authority with the People.
Hobbes wrote Leviathan a few years later in 1651, in which he argued for the merits of absolute political power held by a monarch and against the separation of church and state. Demagogue took on the negative meaning of “a leader who seeks to gain power by exploiting popular prejudices and making false or extravagant claims and promises” very soon after it was introduced in English in the mid-1600s.
This isn’t the first time that the word demagogue has been used in reference to Donald Trump. Back in July, both Lindsay Graham and Rick Perry used the related word demagoguery to refer to Trump’s ideas.
Definition: A disturbance or fuss
When it trended: June 7th, 2016
Lookups for kerfuffle increased 500% on June 7th, 2016. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used the word in reference to the controversy surrounding Donald Trump’s recent attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the U.S. District Court judge overseeing the Trump University case.
Christie insisted that Trump's claim that Curiel's "Mexican heritage" presented "an absolute conflict" to his ability to perform his job was not racism.
"The fact is, the media loves controversy, the media loves to pay attention to this stuff and to work it up," Christie said. "I understand why. I’ve lived with that over the course of time, too, but the fact of the matter is people who are going to vote today in New Jersey and people who are going to vote in November are not going to make their decisions based on this kerfuffle."
—Nick Gass, Politico.com, 7 July 2016
Although kerfuffle gained prominence in the mid-20th century, it was in occasional use earlier. At the very beginning of the 20th century the word was used on a handful of occasions by Alice Perrin, a British novelist. Her 1908 novel The Stronger Claim used a common variant of the word, kafuffle: “Suppose we had been two young bachelors from the regiment”—he winked at Selma—“and you had come home too soon! My!—what a kafuffle there would have been!”
The word means "a disturbance or fuss." It is more commonly encountered in British English than American, and is formed in part from the older Scottish word fuffle, meaning “to dishevel."
Definition: An unfair system or set of attitudes that prevents some people (such as women or people of a certain race) from getting the most powerful jobs
When it trended: June 7th and 8th, 2016
Glass ceiling spiked on June 7th and 8th after primary victories in several states made Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
Eight years ago to the day, in a concession speech following her loss to President Obama in the 2008 primaries, Clinton said:
Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.
Glass ceiling means “an unfair system or set of attitudes that prevents some people (such as women or people of a certain race) from getting the most powerful jobs.” It is a very recent idiom in English, dating back only to 1984. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the term had to do with advancement in the corporate management structure:
Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They're in the top of middle management and they're stopping and getting stuck.
—Adweek, 15 March 1984
By coincidence, 1984 was the year that Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Walter Mondale.
Definition: A believer in the rights, wisdom, and virtues of the common people
When it trended: June 29th, 2016
Speaking at a conference in Canada, President Obama responded to the characterization of some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric as “populist.” Without naming the Republican candidate, Obama prefaced his remarks by saying “maybe somebody can pull up in a dictionary quickly, the phrase populism.”
He then went on to mention his desire to help children, the poor, and workers have equal and fair access to opportunities, saying: “I suppose that makes me a populist,” before taking aim at Donald Trump:
Somebody else who has never shown any regard for workers, has never fought on behalf of social justice issues…in fact have worked against economic opportunity for workers and ordinary people, they don't suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That’s not the measure of populism.
Populist means “a believer in the rights, wisdom, and virtues of the common people.” Appropriately enough in this context, the term was coined as the name of a political party in the United States. Known as the People’s Party or the Populist Party, it existed from 1892 until 1896, when it merged with the Democratic Party. Populist comes from the Latin word for “the people,” populus.
Not only did President Obama mention “a dictionary,” his explanation of the definition of a populist helps explain why so many people looked this word up online.
So I would just advise everybody to be careful about suddenly attributing to whoever pops up at a time of economic anxiety the label that they’re populist.
The initial data for this spike of populist also showed spikes in populous and populace, etymologically related words that have similar pronunciations, indicating that many people heard or saw the president’s remarks before reading news accounts.
Definition: To steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
When it trended: July 19th, 2016
Melania Trump’s speech was supposed to be the highlight of the Republican National Convention, and it almost certainly will be considered the most memorable speech of the night—because it was clear that her speechwriters remembered entire passages from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The similarities are striking and often word-for-word; a video juxtaposing the two speeches shows that they seem to echo each other. Plagiarize and plagiarism both spiked in online dictionary lookups.
Plagiarize means “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own” or “to use (another's production) without crediting the source.” It is a word that frequently spikes in September, when school and college orientations are taking place, because they usually include warnings about plagiarism policies.
The verb plagiarize comes from the slightly older noun plagiary, which could refer to either a plagiarist or a kidnapper. The “kidnapper” sense of this word hearkens back to the Latin word plagiarius, a word for someone who would kidnap children or freemen and sell them into slavery. By the first century CE the word was being used in Latin to refer to a person who stole the words, rather than the children, of another.
Definition: The feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else's feelings
When it trended: July 20th, 2016
Look-ups for empathy spiked sharply after Paul Ryan used the word in a speech on the second evening of the Republican National Convention. “Real social progress is always a widening of the circle of concern and protection," Ryan stated. "It's respect and empathy overtaking blindness and indifference."
The word is somewhat more recent than many similar words, having entered the English language in the middle of the 19th century; sympathy, by comparison, has been in use since the middle of the 16th century. The earliest sense of the word had to do with projecting a state of mind onto an object and ascribing to that object one’s own feelings or state of mind.
It was not until the 20th century the word entered the realm of psychology and came to assume the meaning that we commonly ascribe to it today: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
Servile and Abrogate
Definition: "Very obedient and trying too hard to please someone" and "To end or cancel (something) in a formal and official way" (for servile and abrogate, respectively)
When they trended: July 21st, 2016
Servile saw an increase in look-ups after Ted Cruz's comments to reporters who asked about his dramatic non-endorsement of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Asked about the pledge Cruz signed to back the Republican nominee, he said it was no longer operative. "The day that became abrogated was the day that became personal," Cruz said. "I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father. And that pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you [attack] Heidi I'm going to nonetheless go like a servile puppy dog" and stick to the pledge anyway.
—Katie Glueck, Politico.com, 21 July 2016
The word abrogate, which means "to annul" or "to treat as nonexistent," spiked as well. The word first appeared in English as a verb in the 16th century.
Servile can be traced back to the Latin word servus, meaning “slave,” as may be seen by the earliest use of the word in English, which had the meaning of “befitting a slave or servant.” The word has taken on a number of other senses over the years, including “held in servitude,” “slavishly imitative of a model, especially in literature or art,” and, in Roman Catholicism, “of, relating to, or constituting physical as distinguished from manual labor.” Based on the context it would appear likely that Cruz intended servile to convey a different meaning, such as “lacking spirit or independence” or “engaged in the work of a servant or menial.”
Dystopia and Dystopian
Definition: An imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives
When it trended: July 21st and 22nd, 2016
Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the GOP Convention caused lookups for dystopia and dystopian to increase by 2000%. The speech painted a bleak picture of the state of the nation and the world and lacked the optimism that conventional wisdom associates with successful presidential campaigns.
In his recap of the speech, Seth Myers summarized: “We are currently living in a dystopian nightmare.”
Dystopia means "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives." The word itself is based on utopia, a word that in Greek literally translates as "no place"—since its perfection is unattainable. Dystopia translates literally as "bad place."
Here’s an example of its use in a typical commentary:
For four nights, convention speakers portrayed the U.S. as a grim dystopia: impoverished and ridden with violence.
—Melanie Mason, The Washington Post, 22 July 2016
The adjective dystopian was used even more frequently:
Mr. Trump gave a grim, angry acceptance speech to close a grim, angry convention, casting America as a dystopian hellscape and himself as the only leader capable of saving it from murder, terrorism, financial ruin, and an uncontrolled wave of immigrants.
—James Poniewozik, The New York Times, 22 July 2016
He stoked fears by painting a dark, dystopian image of a country overwhelmed by violent crime and under siege by illegal immigrants.
—Editorial Board, Bloomberg.com, 21 July 2016
The term dystopic is beginning to be used as a synonym of dystopian, but until recently had been used only in medical contexts to mean “relating to the malposition of an anatomical part.” Our citation files indicate that dystopic is being used increasingly in this way.
Definition: To call a meeting to order through use of a gavel
When it trended: July 25, 2016
The Democratic National Convention was to be convened by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, as is customary, but in the wake of leaked emails showing DNC bias against Bernie Sanders, she announced that she would not gavel in the convention—leading to a spike in lookups from people who may have been confused to see gavel used as a verb.
Wasserman Schultz was originally supposed to gavel in the convention when it began and close the Democratic convention officially this week, but it became clear that her presence revealed divisiveness in the party when she was booed and jeered throughout a brief address to her home state delegation of Florida at a breakfast Monday morning.
—CBSNEWS.com, “Wasserman Schultz will not gavel in Democratic Convention,” 25 July 2016
The convention was instead opened by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore. A headline on the Baltimore Sun blog read “Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will gavel in Democratic National Convention.”
Gavel began as a noun meaning “a mallet used (as by a presiding officer or auctioneer) for commanding attention or confirming an action (as a vote or sale).” The exact origin of the term is unknown, but its use dates back to 1835. When used as a verb, gavel in means “to call a meeting to order.”
There are a number of older senses of gavel used as a verb, including “to rake or collect grain or hay in sheafs,” and “to subject to or distribute according to the custom of gavelkind.” The sense employed here, referring to the action of calling a meeting to order through use of the gavel, appears to be North American in origin, with our earliest citation dating from 1884.
At 12:20 the convention was gaveled to order by Hon. O. M. Barnes, Chairman of the State Central Committee.
—The Detroit Free Press, 19 June 1884
Oligarchy and Socialism
Definition: "A government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes" and "A system of social organization in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control"
When it trended: July 26, 2016
Bernie Sanders’s speech at the Democratic National Convention included vigorous endorsements of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. One of his statements sent many people to the dictionary to look up oligarchy:
Hillary Clinton will nominate justices to the Supreme Court who are prepared to overturn Citizens United and end the movement toward oligarchy in this country.
Oligarchy means "a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes." It dates back to the early 1600s, and comes from the Greek words that mean "few" and "to rule." Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, and while socialism is consistently in our top lookups at all times, it too experienced a surge of interest during Sanders's speech.
Definition: An express or implied promise or contract or quasi contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a suit, or a common-law action that may be brought for such a breach
When it trended: July 26, 2016
When Representative Joseph Kennedy III introduced Senator Elizabeth Warren on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, he told an anecdote that sent many Americans scrambling for their dictionaries:
First day of law school. First class. The goal: escape unscathed. Three seconds in, I get the first question:
“Mr. Kennedy, what is the definition of assumpsit?”
“Mr. Kennedy, you realize assumpsit was the first word in your reading?”
“Yes. I circled it because I didn’t know what it meant.”
“Mr. Kennedy, do you own a dictionary? That’s what people use when they don’t know a word.”
I never showed up unprepared for Professor Elizabeth Warren again.
—Joseph P. Kennedy III, as quoted in The Boston Globe, 26 July 2016
While Kennedy successfully whetted the public's curiosity about the meaning of assumpsit, he never actually explained what it meant, causing his audience to take his advice and look it up. Lookups for assumpsit skyrocketed in the minutes after Kennedy's story; the following morning, lookups were still high at an astonishing 92,000% increase over the previous month's average.
Legally, an assumpsit is defined as an express or implied promise or contract or quasi contract, the breach of which may be grounds for a suit, or a common-law action that may be brought for such a breach. Assumpsit comes from the Latin for "he undertook," and originated in the 14th century as a form of recovery for the negligent performance of an undertaking. It gradually came to cover the many kinds of agreement called for by the expansion of commerce and technology.
The concept of assumpsit was first introduced in cases in which the defendant damaged goods entrusted to him by the plaintiff—e.g., where the defendant had taken the plaintiff’s horse in order to transport it across a river and negligently caused the ferry to overturn so that the horse drowned.
Assumpsit did not become a contractual remedy in the modern sense until two modifications occurred: (1) the emphasis shifted from the negligent act of the defendant to the defendant’s failure to keep his promise; and (2) the action was made available as a remedy in situations where the defendant did something improperly or neglected to do something he had promised to do.
Definition: An overwhelming affirmative vote by cheers, shouts, or applause rather than by ballot
When it trended: July 26, 2016
Sen. Sanders motion to suspend rules, select Clinton by acclimation was a real class act Thank you, Bernie!
—Twitter.com, 6:27 PM - 26 Jul 2016
BREAKING: Democratic party nominates @HillaryClinton by acclamation at the request of @BernieSanders.
—Twitter.com, 6:01 PM - 26 Jul 2016
Acclamation and acclimation have a subtlety of distinction that may have eluded many of the people who are using the latter word this evening. Acclamation has two primary meanings: it may refer either to “a loud eager expression of approval, praise, or assent,” or to “an overwhelming affirmative vote by cheers, shouts, or applause rather than by ballot.” This is presumably the word, in the second sense listed above, that most people were intending to use in their coverage of Clinton’s nomination.
However, one must not overlook the fact that, in its own fashion, acclimation—which saw a 1537% increase in lookups— might well be just as applicable. This word, which refers to the process or action of adjusting to a new climate, place, or situation, could well be used to refer to the first ever major party nomination of a woman to run for president.
Definition: Excessively fond of or submissive to a wife
When it trended: July 27, 2016
Lookups for uxorious spiked on July 27, after the word was used in Maureen Dowd's account of Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. The speech marked the first time a potential First Husband addressed a national audience following the first-ever nomination of a woman to be president.
The speech was intended to be more personal than political, and it was full of anecdotes of Hillary Clinton’s home life as well as her career in politics. In her account of the speech in The New York Times, Dowd wrote:
In an act of amazing self-restraint, the man who relishes the word “I” managed to make the talk, as he prefers to call his folksy speeches, all about her. He was positively uxorious.
Definition: The offense of attempting to overthrow the government of one's country or of assisting its enemies in war
When it trended: July 27, 2016
Lookups for treason spiked 76% after comments by Donald Trump that seemed to encourage Russian spying on Hillary Clinton.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Mr. Trump said, staring directly into the cameras. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Mr. Trump’s call was an extraordinary moment at a time when Russia is being accused of meddling in the U.S. presidential election.—Ashley Parker, The New York Times, 27 July 2016
Reaction on Twitter was immediate, with many people using treason to describe what seemed to be Trump’s encouragement of hacking directed at his opponent.
Any lawyers out there? What do you have to do to commit treason in America? Asking for a friend. https://t.co/WvNuEjVR3k— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) July 27, 2016
Treason comes to English from the Old French traison, which can be traced back to the Latin traditus, the past participle of tradere (“to hand over, betray”). Tradere is also the Latin origin of our word traitor.
Treason may refer broadly to a betrayal of trust or confidence, but in the sense relating to politics it is defined rather specifically as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or his family,” and has a specifically legal meaning as well: “the act of levying war against the United States or adhering to or giving aid and comfort to its enemies by one who owes it allegiance.” This form of treason is occasionally referred to as high treason, which may be distinguished from petty (or petit) treason, which under English law historically applied to “the crime committed by a servant in killing his master, by a wife in killing her husband, or by an ecclesiastic in killing his superior.”
Definition: Insincere or foolish talk
When it trended: July 27, 2016
Malarkey rose to the top of our look-ups on the evening of July 27th, 2016, after Vice-President Joseph Biden used the word in a speech at the Democratic National Convention.
“He is trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break. That is a bunch of malarkey.”
—Joe Biden, quoted on Politico.com, 27 July 2016
We've commented on Biden’s use of this word before. Yet last night’s speech appeared to draw more attention to the word than had earlier speeches of the Vice President; Ben Mathis-Lilley of Slate wrote that it was “the most electrifying use of the word malarkey in history,” and Ben Guarino at the Washington Post began his article by writing “If Joe Biden had a catchphrase, 'a bunch of malarkey' might well be it."
Biden does indeed appear to have an affinity for this word, with dozens of recorded uses over the course of his time in the public eye, stretching back to at least 1983.
But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), an opponent of Reagan's proposed changes on the commission, attacked Hatch's assertions as "unadulterated malarkey.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Jul., 1983
"Don't buy all this malarkey that we're (the Dukakis campaign) in so much trouble," Biden told the crowd.
—Bill Miller, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 Oct., 1988
"You'll hear, 'This liberal President did this liberal thing, got sucked in,'" Mr. Biden told the gallery of rainy-day visitors. "Malarkey!" he countered in his straw man mini-debate, clearly bracing for two rugged days of holding the rhetorical fort.
—Francis X. Clines, The New York Times, 24 Apr. 1997
In addition to newspaper reports of Biden using malarkey, there is a considerable body of citational evidence demonstrating his use of the word in Congressional and Senate hearings:
Good, because absent that, the rest of this is malarkey, guys. You know it and I know it. Stop playing your intellectual games.
— Hearing before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, 22 Mar., 2000
I know a little about this stuff. He knows a lot of about this stuff. The audience doesn't know what we're talking about, but you all know and we know. Just so you know that we know. It's one those kinds of things where it would be helpful if we cut through a lot of the malarkey.
—Hearing before the Subcommittee of Crime and Drugs, 22 May 2002
I think that is malarkey. That is not legitimate.
—Oversight Hearing on Counterterrorism, 6 June 2002
No one is certain where malarkey comes from, although a number of possible etymologies (such as it having descended from a Greek word, an Irish surname, or various forms of slang) have been proposed. Although the linguistic origins of malarkey are shrouded in doubt, we are fairly certain of its geographic roots: all of our initial evidence for this word comes from North America in the early 1920s.
Indeed the challenger has been so unimpressive in public that a coterie of volunteer pallbearers has made a practice of attending all workouts at the dog track and laughing immoderately at every move the Latin makes. They seem to think he is a lot of ‘malarkey,’ as it were.
—New Castle News (New Castle, PA), 8 Sept., 1923
Some attempt has been made to account for the defeat of the United States hockey team by the Canadians in the Olympic games by declaring that the result was the fruit of team work rather than individual brilliancy. This is so much malarkey, according to the best informed sources.
—The Evening Review (Liverpool, OH), 12 Feb., 1924
It remains to be seen whether malarkey will rise again in the wake of Biden's single-handed campaign to repopularize the word. In the meantime, for those who can't get enough malarkey, our list of synonyms (applesauce, baloney, flapdoodle, nerts, trumpery, folderol, horsefeathers....) is long and well worth reading.
Definition: The act or practice of pretending to be what one is not or to have principles or beliefs that one does not have
When it trended: July 28, 2016
Lookups for hypocrisy spiked after the word was used in Michael Bloomberg's speech at the Democratic National Convention. The former New York City mayor was bluntly critical of presidential candidate Donald Trump:
Truth be told, the richest thing about Donald Trump is his hypocrisy. He wants you to believe that we can solve our biggest problems by deporting Mexicans and shutting out Muslims. He wants you to believe that erecting trade barriers will bring back good jobs. He's wrong on both counts.
—Transcript of Michael Bloomberg's DNC Speech, Vox.com, 27 July 2016
Hypocrisy in a relatively old word in English, with its use dating back to the 13th century. For the first several centuries of its use the word was spelled with an initial I or Y; it began to be spelled with an H in the 16th century. The word can be traced back to the Greek hypokrisis, which is defined as “the act of playing a part on the stage"; the word took on an extended meaning to refer to the act of wearing a figurative mask and pretending to be someone or something that one was not.
Hypocrite is of a similar age as hypocrisy, with regular use in English from the 13th century. The adjective hypocritical is of a slightly more recent vintage, with our earliest citation occurring in 1536, in Philipp Melanchthon’s The Confessyon of the Fayth of the Germaynes: “He speakethe not of those hypocriticall satisfactions, whiche schole men do imagine euen than also to be auayllable to the redemynge of the paynes of Purgatory, or of other paynes, whan they be done of them, whiche be in deadely synne.”
Bigotry and Bombast
Definition: "Obstinate and unreasoning attachment to one's own belief and opinions with intolerance of beliefs opposed to them" and "Speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful”
When it trended: July 28, 2016
Lookups for bombast spiked after Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which she directly addressed Donald Trump’s qualifications, readiness, and temperament to be president:
And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn't get: America is great because America is good! So enough with the bigotry and the bombast. Donald Trump's not offering real change, he's offering empty promises.
Bombast means “speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful.” Despite the resemblance to bomb and an association with explosive rhetoric and loud delivery, bombast isn’t related to bomb at all. It comes from the Latin word bombax which means “cotton” and refers to cotton padding or stuffing. Thus, bombast etymologically means speech that is overstuffed, not speech that resembles a bomb blast.
Definition: The moment of truth; the time when something would be decided
When it trended: July 28, 2016
Lookups for reckoning spiked as news outlets reported Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the 2016 election was a "moment of reckoning."
Clinton Warns of a "Moment of Reckoning"
—The New York Times, 29 July 2016
US Election: US Faces "Moment of Reckoning" says Hillary Clinton
—BBC.com, 29 July 2016
Hillary Clinton: America at a "Moment of Reckoning"
—U. S. News & World Report, 29 July 2016
Reckoning, which when used as a noun may mean several different things including “the act or an instance of computing or calculating,” “calculation of a ship’s position,” or “a settling of accounts," has been in use in English since the 14th century. When it is used in a temporal sense, such as “the hour/year/moment of reckoning” the word typically means “the moment of truth; the time when something would be decided.”
Definition: Not controlled or restricted
When it trended: August 1, 2016
Lookups for unfettered spiked after Senator John McCain issued a statement condemning Donald Trump’s negative comments about the parents of a U.S. Army soldier killed in Iraq:
While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.
Unfettered means “not controlled or restricted” and is a synonym of free and unrestrained. It comes from fetter, which means “a chain or shackle for the feet” and also has the figurative meaning of “restraint,” or something that confines.
Unfettered has been in use in English since at least the beginning of the 17th century, when it was used by Thomas Dekker:
O happy persecution I embrace thee With an vnfettered soule; so sweet a thing It is to sigh upon the racke of love
—Thomas Dekker, Blurt Master-Constable, 1602
The word is a combination of the prefix un- and fetter. Fetter is an old word, going back to Old English, which existed initially as a noun and later became a verb with both a literal meaning of “to put fetters on” and a figurative one of “to restrain form motion, action, or progress." Fetter's Old English ancestor, feter, is etymologically shackled to "fōt," the Old English ancestor of "foot."
Definition: Of a kind to cause or apparently cause stroke
When it trended: August 3, 2016
Apoplectic rose, as bile rises in the gorge of a bilious patient, to the top of our lookups on August 3rd after reports that the chairman of the Republican National Committee was dissatisfied with Donald Trump’s latest political maneuverings.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is furious with Donald Trump's refusal to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), NBC News reported. Priebus is “apoplectic” over Trump’s remarks and called campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other top staffers to voice his “extreme displeasure,” NBC reported, citing a source in the GOP.
—Harper Neidig, TheHill.com, 3 Aug. 2016
Apoplectic, which comes from a Greek verb meaning “to cripple by a stroke,” initially had a medical meaning: “of, relating to, or causing apoplexy or stroke.” The word has been in use since at least 1562, when it appeared in Girolamo Ruscelli’s The Thyrde and Last Parte of the Secretes of the Reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemont: “This water is also verye good for men that be apoplectique yf they be wasshed with it.”
By the middle of the 19th century, apoplectic had begun to be associated with anger rather than actual apoplexy.
Definition: Something given up or lost
When it trended: August 3, 2016
Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention has become a main subject of several news cycles, in part because Donald Trump continued to criticize Mr. Khan for days following the convention.
Mr. Khan’s statement that Donald Trump "sacrificed nothing and no one” caused an increase in lookups for sacrifice that began on July 30 and lasted for nearly a week. It's likely that Trump's response—“I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices”—played a role in keeping interest in sacrifice alive.
Sacrifice means “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else” or “something given up or lost,” and is a synonym of “loss.” It comes from the Latin words sacer (“sacred”) and facere (“to make”); its root word literally means “to make sacred.” In English, it originally referred to the slaughter of an animal as an offering to a deity.
Definition: Extreme egocentrism
When it trended: August 5, 2016
He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him.
—Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 4 Aug. 2016
The word may be used as a philosophical term, with the definition of “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing.” However, when the word is not being used by philosophers it typically means “extreme egocentrism”, which appears to be the sense intended by Krauthammer.
Our earliest record of the use of solipsism in English comes at the very end of the 18th century, in a translation of a work by Immanuel Kant:
If the maxims should be adopted according to those ends (which are all dictated by solipsism), the conception of duty could properly speaking have no connexion whatever with the subject in hand.
—Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysic of Morals, 1799
Definition: Involving chance or probability
When it trended: August 10, 2016
Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication "to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."
—David S. Cohen, Rolling Stone, 9 Aug. 2016
Although the modern sense of stochastic (“random” or “involving chance or probability”) did not begin to be used until the early 20th century, the word had an earlier incarnation and meaning, one that is now in thorough disuse. In the 17th and early 18th centuries stochastic was used in the sense of “subject to, or pertaining to, conjecture.”
Ergo, the Popish Religion is but stochasticke, and conjecturall.
—Andrew Logie, Raine from the Clouds, 1624
The word comes from the Greek word stochastikos, which means “skillful in aiming” or “proceeding by guesswork.”
Definition: A bounding or limiting line
When it trended: August 10, 2016
The word Rubicon spiked in online lookups on August 10, 2016, following Donald Trump’s insinuation that gun-rights advocates might assassinate Hillary Clinton. The comment drew immediate attention and criticism, including this headline from the web page of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”:
'Disqualifying,' 'toxic': Trump crosses rubicon
Rubicon means “a bounding or limiting line,” especially “one that when crossed commits a person irrevocably.” It was the name of a small river in north central Italy that separated Italy and Gaul in Roman times, which was crossed by Julius Caesar against the orders of the government in 49 B.C. The resulting civil war in Rome led to Caesar becoming the undisputed leader of the Roman world—and the end of the Roman Republic. It’s usually capitalized and used in the phase “crossing the Rubicon.” This is not the first time that Rubicon has been used in reference to Donald Trump’s candidacy:
Predictions that Trump had somehow crossed the rubicon by insulting Iowa caucus-goers — via a tweet he later blamed on an intern — haven’t fully panned out in the polling.
—Tierney Sneed, talkingpointsmemo.com, 29 December 2015
"As a matter of prudence, the Republican Party should also have the ability to reject a leader, no matter how popularly elected, if they are guilty of impropriety or misconduct," Republican strategist Rory Cooper wrote in a post for Medium. "The Rules Committee have it within their power to install a mechanism whereas if a potential nominee crosses a line or embarrasses the party to an extraordinary degree, delegates can vote for an alternative candidate. Many in the party believe Trump has already crossed that Rubicon."
—Diana Pearl, People, 14 June 2016
But the latest — his invitation for America’s widely condemned rival Russia to hack Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails — has crossed a new political Rubicon.
—Editorial, thestar.com, 28 July 2016
Definition: A sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain
When it trended: August 12, 2016
Donald Trump Explains His Obama-Founded-ISIS Claim as ‘Sarcasm’
—The New York Times, 12 Aug. 2016
In reversal, Trump says IS claim about Obama was sarcastic
—The Washington Post, 12 Aug. 2016
Both words may be traced to the Greek word sarkázein, which means "to jeer at while biting the lips." Of the two, sarcasm is the older word, with use dating back to 1550. Sarcasm means "a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain" or "a mode of satirical wit depending for its effect on bitter, caustic, and often ironic language that is usually directed against an individual."
Our earliest citation for the word sarcastic comes from 1638, when Edward Raban used it in a rather self-serving fashion:
To Vindicate, and deliver my self, from the imputation of Sarcastick, bitter, too loose, & liberall speaches, agaynst the most Noble, Worthie, and Transcendant Sexe of WOMEN, (which some, knowing their own imperfect weaknesse, may apprehend to be Calumnies, and detractiue to the whole Sexe) I here make humble Oblation….
—Edward Raban, The Glorie of Man Consisting in the Excellence and Perfection of Woman, 1638
And if you were hoping that there is a word for a sarcastic person, you’re in luck: it’s sarcast.
Definition: To turn on or as if on a pivot
When it trended: August 16, 2016
Pivot spiked in lookups after Donald Trump announced that this was a thing which he had no plans of doing.
“I am who I am. It’s me. I don’t want to change. Everyone talks about, ‘Oh, well you’re going to pivot.’ I don’t want to pivot,” Trump said in a Tuesday interview with Wisconsin television station WKBT. “I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people.”
—Igor Bobic, The Huffington Post, 16 Aug., 2016
Although pivot has enjoyed a long life in English as a noun—it's been around since the 14th century—it has but recently (using recently rather relatively) come to be used as a verb. The earliest known use in this part of speech is from the 18th century, when the word began to be used by dentists in descriptions of the things that they would do to one’s teeth.
Mr. Spence, having now returned to Philadelphia, begs leave to inform the public that he continues to perform every operation relating to the TEETH, such as cleaning, pivoting, extracting, &c. &c. in the best manner, and according to the latest discoveries.
—Pennsylvania Journal, 7 Jan., 1786
Pivot is often encountered these days in highly figurative use, indicating that a person is shifting positions or tactics.
Definition: To obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release
When it trended: August 17, 2016
Lookups for redact spiked after the F.B.I. gave Congress materials from their investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server, and again after the F.B.I. released its summary report of its investigation.
Chaffetz (R-Utah) said his staff had informed him that among the materials turned over was a “heavily redacted” 302 from Clinton herself, and he was not sure that any of the information could be released publicly.
—Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian, The Washington Post, 16 Aug., 2016
According to a person familiar with the matter, the unclassified portions of the FBI’s material weren’t heavily redacted, with the exception of some names.
—Devlin Barrett, The Wall Street Journal, 16 Aug., 2016
Redact has been used as a verb since at least the 15th century, although the earliest meanings of the word were somewhat different than the one that is generally encountered today. Earlier senses of the word have included “to select or adapt for publication; edit,” and “to lower in condition or quality.” A more common current meaning of redact is “to obscure or remove (text) from a document prior to publication or release.”
Definition: A person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
When it trended: August 24, 2016
Bigot spiked dramatically in lookups on August 24th, after comments made by Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi.
As Donald Trump listed the ways that he would make life better for African Americans living in poverty, he suddenly shouted, "Hillary Clinton is a bigot!"
-Sean Sullivan and Jenna Johnson, The Washington Post, 24 Aug., 2016
The current definition of bigot is “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” However, when the word first entered the English language (borrowed from French at the end of the 16th century) it had the meaning of “a superstitious religious hypocrite.”
Definition: Idealizing or idolizing biography
When it trended: August 25, 2016
Hagiography spiked in lookups on August 25th, after this relatively obscure word appeared in headlines for two distinct articles about two distinct people.
Ann Coulter’s Donald Trump hagiography was very poorly timed
-The Washington Post (headline), 25 Aug. 2016
Review: In an Obama Biopic, the Audacity of Hagiography?
-The New York Times (headline), 25 Aug. 2016
The earliest meaning of hagiography was “a biography of saints” (it comes from Greek roots for “holy” and “writing”). The word has been used in this sense in English since the early 17th century.
First therefore, If I be demaunded whether through the world there were not many sundry Abces inuented of diuers men? I answere, there was but one: and that one, of God himselfe, the true Hagiography or Hieroglyps of our first Fathers.
-Alexander Top, The Olive Leafe, 1603
Today, however, the word is most often employed in a largely figurative sense, relating to a biography that idealizes its subject (as seen in the two headlines above).
Definition: Conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature
When it trended: September 7, 2016
Donald Trump’s recent comments on national security included his plan to defeat terrorism:
I am going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction: They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for defeating ISIS.
Speaking to Anderson Cooper on CNN, retired army general Mark Hertling reacted to Trump’s idea by pointing out that the military have been trying to defeat ISIS for years, and that many would take offense at the notion that they haven’t. He added:
It's a sophomoric approach to elements of national security policy.
Sophomoric means “conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature.” It’s the adjective form of sophomore, which probably comes from the combination of the Greek words sophos ("wise") and mōros ("foolish")—clearly, it was felt that students in their second year had learned a bit of wisdom, but not enough to keep them from being foolish.
Definition: Very bad in a way that causes shock, fear, or disgust : deserving to be deplored
When it trended: September 9, 2016
Hillary Clinton’s use of the word deplorables when describing “half of Trump supporters” sent many people to the dictionary to look up the word. At a fund-raiser in New York, Clinton said:
To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.
Donald Trump’s campaign demanded an apology for the remark.
One reason some people may have looked up the word may be that it seems unfamiliar: deplorable is defined as an adjective meaning either “lamentable” or “deserving censure or contempt,” a synonym of “wretched” or “abominable.” But Clinton’s use in the plural, deplorables, marks the word as a noun—and deplorable is not defined as a noun in Merriam-Webster dictionaries. (Deplorableness is given as the noun form.)
Clinton’s use of deplorables is ambiguous: the word could be defined here as “people who are deplorable” or “qualities or characteristics that are deplorable.” Part of the ambiguity comes from the novelty of the usage, since deplorable is rarely used as a noun in this way. The Oxford English Dictionary does include a rare use of deplorable as a noun dating to the early 1800s, defined as “deplorable ills,” as in “rheumatism and other deplorables.” There's another example in the February 8, 1838 edition of the Commercial Advertiser (New York, NY): "You have already been informed of all the steps taken by the government to put a final period to these commotions, and I trust that the authors of the deplorables committed in New Mexico, will meet their just reward."
Deplorables has been used as a noun more recently, but it's rare:
Secretary Robert H. Finch of the Health, Education and Welfare Department, announcing the final wording of the statement, conceded it was a compromise--"a delicate balance" between a "list of deplorables" and their ratio of incidence.
—The Omaha World-Herald, 8 April 1970
A 1996 letter to the editor of the Augusta Chronicle offered a "list of personal deplorables" in which the author bemoaned everything from child abuse to the burning of churches, "one deplorable after another."
Adjectives are often used as noncount nouns: “the beautiful,” “the sublime,” “the just,” and even “the unemployed.” When used as count nouns they can draw attention to a particular quality exhibited by a group: “the ancients,” “the dailies.”
Deplore ultimately comes from the Latin word deplorare, from plorare meaning “to wail” or “to lament” with the prefix de-, used in this case to underscore or intensify the meaning of the word (just as de- is used in words like declare and declaim).
Definition: a British game played by rolling a wooden ball toward a set of objects in order to knock over as many objects as possible
When it trended: September 20, 2016
Lookups for skittle spiked as Twitter reacted to this tweet from Donald Trump Jr.:
The candy brand Skittles replied with the statement "Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don't feel it's an appropriate analogy."
In truth, we don't enter the "candy" sense of skittle—that's a trademarked word. Unlike some of the trademarks we do enter, such as such as Kleenex, Frisbee, and Dumpster, the word skittles has not shown prolonged and substantial use as a general term. In other words, if skittles were to be used for a number of years by many people to refer to any sort of small colorful candy, then it would merit a distinct definition—but that hasn't happened so far.
So, why is skittles in our dictionary? The word has a long-standing use in English, referring to a British bowling game in which a wooden ball is used to knock down pins, or skittles. The earliest evidence we have for this word comes from a 1630 play, used in rather poetic fashion.
To cleaue you from the scalpe
Vnto the twist: to make nine skittles of
Your bones, and winde your heratstrings 'bout my thumbe—
—William D’Avenant, The Just Italian, 1630
This "bowling" sense of skittles is the sense intended in the phrase beer and skittles, as in "life isn't all beer and skittles."
When it trended: September 26, 2016
Lookups for braggadocio spiked during the debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on September 26th, after Trump used a word that is very similar in nature and spelling. The word employed by Trump was braggadocious, which is a dialectical word from 19th century America, meaning “arrogant.”
…the disturbance of an audience of a crowded theatre, on the same evening, by loud and offensive braggadocious and conspicuous gestures and headshakings….
—Daily Courier (Louisville, KY), 15 Jan., 1851
Donald Trump has used braggadocious previously; the word is not common enough to merit an entry in our dictionary.
It is thought to have come from braggadocio (also not a common word today), which is considerably older. This term, which currently means “the annoying or exaggerated talk of someone who is trying to sound very proud or brave” began to be used in the beginning of the 17th century, at which point it simply referred to a braggart.
SO then of Pappadocio: whom neuerthelesse I esteeme a hundred times learneder, and a thousand times honester, then this other Braggadocio; that hath more learning, then honestie, and more money, then learning, although he truly intitle himselfe, Pierce Penniles, and be elsewhere stiled the Gentleman Raggamuffin.
—Gabriel Harvey, Pierces supererogation, 1593
Definition: the usual attitude, mood, or behavior of a person or animal
When it trended: September 26, 2016
Lookups for temperament spiked 78 times over our hourly average as the first presidential debate caused people to turn to our dictionary in search of that word’s many meanings.
I think my strongest asset, maybe by far is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not.
—Donald Trump, Presidential Debate Transcript
That's bad judgment. That is not the right temperament to be commander in chief....
-Hillary Clinton, Presidential Debate Transcript
Temperament has been in the English language for a considerable length of time: its use dates back to the 15th century. There are a number of senses of the word which have become more or less obsolete, such as the one that saw a person’s temperament as their character based on the proportion of the four humors in the body (there were choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, and sanguine temperaments).
The sense in which both candidates appeared to be using temperament likely had little to do with bile of phlegm, and instead was more in line with the usual modern sense of the word, “the usual attitude, mood, or behavior of a person or animal.”
Definition: staying power; perseverance
When it trended: September 26, 2016
Stamina spiked dramatically in lookups on September 26th, following Donald Trump’s repeated claims that it was something that Hillary Clinton lacked.
She doesn't have the look. She doesn't have the stamina. I said she doesn't have the stamina, and I don't believe she does have the stamina. To be president of this country, you need tremendous stamina.
—Donald Trump, Presidential Debate Transcript, 26 September 2016
Stamina comes from the Latin plural of stamen (“warp, thread of life spun by the fates”). The etymology of the word makes sense in light of the initial sense of the word when it entered the language in the middle of the 17th century: “the essential or fundamental parts, elements, or nature of something especially an organism."
There must be Brain, Spinal Marrow, Nerves, Tendons, Muscles, Ligaments, Articulations; and for the support and firmitude of all these, there must be some more solid stamina, or a kind of Bones and Cartilagineous contextures….
-Walter Charleton, Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charltoniana, 1654
The sense of stamina meaning “staying power; perseverance” came about in the early 18th century.
Clinton replied, "Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities and nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina."
Bigly. Or 'Big League'.
Definition: the adverbial form of big, which does in fact exist, and "big time," respectively
When it trended: September 26, 2016
Lookups for big and bigly spiked on September 26th and 27th. Many people heard bigly when Trump said big league in the debate:
I'm going to cut taxes big league and you're going to raise taxes big league. End of story.
Trump often uses the phrase big league in a figurative sense; the manner in which he pronounces these words have caused many people to assume that he was using a single word (bigly), rather than two.
Big league has been in use since 1882 as a term for the major league of professional baseball (particularly in the United States, although it has also been used to refer to the upper echelons of other sports). The term began to see figurative use in the early 20th century.
Our files indicate the big league has been used as a figurative adjective since 1916:
The candidate for governor spoke next, Mr. DesChamps being the first of the “big league” candidates introduced.
—The Greenville News (Greenville, SC), 23 Jun., 1916
And the phrase has been in use as a noun in a figurative sense since at least 1930:
“Oh, bottle that in your goodlookin’ mush. You miss those penny-ante punks you thought were big shots in Chi. You’re in the big league now, red head. What they took down is tips to waiters here.”
—The Morning News (Wilmington, DE), 14 Nov., 1930
The adverbial use of big league favored by Trump is not often encountered.
Definition: having or resulting from a weak character or nature
When it trended: October 4, 2016
Lookups for feckless spiked dramatically after Mike Pence used it in the vice-presidential debate.
After Mr. Kaine mentioned Mr. Trump’s frequent praise of Vladimir Putin and the Trump campaign’s “shadowy connections with pro-Putin forces,” Mr. Pence blamed the Obama administration’s “weak and feckless foreign policy” for Russian aggression.
—Nicholas Confessore and Matt Flegenheimer, The New York Times, 4 Oct. 2016
The word, which has been in use in English since the end of the 16th century, has become somewhat of a favorite of US politicians in recent years. Both Senator John McCain and Governor Chris Christie, among others, have used the word in highly publicized speeches or debates.
The Scottish word feck has among its meanings “value, worth,” and so a thing that is feckless may be lacking in such. However, feckless has also had a number of other senses in which it has been used over the past few hundred years, and none of them are particularly complimentary (“lazy and worthless,” “irresponsible,” “meaningless,” and the like). If someone calls you feckless, there is very little chance that you are being complimented.
On the other hand, although little-used, the word feckful means “efficient,” “sturdy,” or ‘”powerful.” We are still waiting to see that one come up in politics.
Definition: to break up into opposing factions or groupings
When it trended: October 4, 2016
During the vice presidential debate on October 4, Elaine Quijano asked both candidates about policing and race relations. Senator Tim Kaine’s response about community policing sent people to the dictionary, but not to look up community policing:
Donald Trump recently said we need to do more stop and frisk around the country. That would be a big mistake because it polarizes the relationship between the police and the community.
Polarize was the word that spiked after that comment, and remained high on our lookup list throughout the debate. Kaine used the word with its most common meaning—that is, to divide or introduce a separation into something.
Nowadays we think of polarization as ideological divisiveness, but it has a physical origin. When polarize first came into English in the early 1800s, it was used to refer to making something, and particularly light waves, vibrate in a particular pattern or in a particular direction:
Mr. Malus is still pursuing with success his inquiries concerning polarised light.
— The Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, 1811
The Mr. Malus in question was looking at the properties of reflected and refracted light, and he noted that the direction of refracted light changed when the crystal he was using was reversed. Though Malus didn’t call this polarized, one of his colleagues did, and borrowed the French verb polariser to refer to the way the light changed direction.
The French word in turn came from the Latin word polaris. We borrowed polaris into English to refer to the Pole Stars, and adapted polar from polaris to refer to the geographic poles, and then to the two poles of attraction on a magnet.
If you’ve ever played with magnets, you know that when you place magnets with the same polarity near one another, they skitter off in opposite directions. This action, along with the earliest use to refer to a change in a light wave’s direction, gave rise to the meaning we’re familiar with: to split, to divide, to separate into opposite factions. It’s a word that seems to sum up the current political climate well.
Definition: an indication of the end or the failure of something
When it trended: October 7, 2016
A private conversation recorded in 2005 by “Access Hollywood” revealed Donald Trump’s apparently proud description, in graphic and vulgar language, of both his attempted seduction of a married woman and how he objectifies, gropes, and kisses women in general. Death knell was looked up by many people, because it was used in some of the press coverage of the recording, including a Politico headline:
Trump tape could be campaign’s death knell
And a caption used by CNN:
Timing of leaked tape could be “death knell”
Knell comes from an Old English word that was a synonym of toll, meaning “to sound a bell.” Knell can mean “a sound of a bell when it is rung slowly because someone has died,” and, more broadly, “an indication of the end or the failure of something." Death knell means “an action or event presaging death or destruction.”
The use of similar phrases, such as death’s knell, goes as far back as 1628, when it was used as the title of a book by William Perkins. In 1768 a phrase close to the one we use today was used by Francis Beaumont in his play The Royal Merchant: "Nay—then I'll ring my own death's knell."
However, the date currently accepted as the earliest known written use of death knell is 1773, when Patrick Brydone used it in A Tour Through Sicily and Malta: “Every stroke of the flint sounded in Pasqual's ears like his death-knell.”
Knell is a word of considerably older vintage, with use dating back to before the 12th century.
Definition: of, relating to, or suitable for use in a locker room, especially: of a coarse or sexual nature
When it trended: October 9, 2016
Locker rooms have been with us since the middle of the 19th century, when they referred simply to rooms which had lockers and in which people changed their clothes. However, the word has also been used, for a considerable length of time, as an adjective, denoting things (especially talk) of a coarse or offensive nature.
Trump repeated his apology but downplayed the seriousness of his comments. "This was locker-room talk," he said.
-Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times, 9 Oct. 2016
The adjectival use of locker-room has been combined with talk since at least 1921:
In the July issue of the magazine Mr. Richards has two articles: one on the Bloomfield Hills Country Club, in which he sketches accurately and in a delightfully humorous way some of the locker-room talk that may be heard at any country club.
-Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), 4 Sept.1921
Definition: (often disparaging) a white member of the Southern rural laboring class
When it trended: October 12, 2016
Lookups for redneck, an often disparaging term for “a white member of the Southern rural laboring class” (or a person whose behavior is similar to that of that group) spiked after former president Bill Clinton used the word during a discussion of Trump's base:
Former president Bill Clinton on Tuesday used the word “redneck” to describe supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “Look, man the other guy’s base is what I grew up in,” he said during a Florida appearance. ”You know, I’m basically your standard redneck.”
—Jack Davis, westernjournalism.com, 12 Oct. 2016
Redneck has been in use since 1830 to refer, typically in derogatory fashion, to poor or unsophisticated whites, generally those inhabiting the southern United States. There is some ambiguity as to when the word began to be so applied, however, as redneck was often found used in the mid-19th century to also refer pejoratively to certain religious groups (the use of redneck from 1830 refers to Presbyterians).
…as we had, by some means or other, imbibed a strong aversion for Popery, and a dread and hatred for Catholics, or Rednecks, as we used to call them—why or wherefore we knew not.
—Raleigh Register (Raleigh, NC), 19 Mar. 1841
By the end of the 19th century the word had lost any overt religious significance and taken on a definite meaning in specific reference to Southerners.
There was an element in the Southern United States, which still exists, known to northern people as “poor white trash,” and locally known as “crackers,” “dirt-eaters,” and “red-necks,” which was a constant reproach, it being thought that slavery caused and fostered it.
—Daily Honolulu Press, 15 Sep. 1885
A number of people have characterized Clinton’s use of the term as offensive. While we are in no way seeking to dictate whether one should or should not take umbrage, it should perhaps be noted that the label is not seen as disparaging by all: there have been a number of people in recent decades who have proudly self-identified as rednecks, including Bill Clinton.
Herman says Clinton, a self-described redneck who grew up in backwoods Arkansas and knows his barbecue, can relate to the Southern male voter.
—William Gibson, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL.), 20 Oct. 1996
When it was his turn to speak, Clinton responded to Goldberg's teasing by riposting: "I was especially glad to see Whoopi Goldberg up here so I wouldn't be the only redneck on stage tonight."
—The Gazette (Montreal, Que.), 19 Sept. 1992
Clinton, who also opposes forced return of Haitians, makes a similar appeal for giving opportunity to all types of Americans, "even ol` rednecks like me."
—William Gibson, _Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL.), 9 Mar. 1992
Keen readers will also observe that Clinton was describing himself as a redneck in the quote that drew such ire on Wednesday.
Definition: humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.
When it trended: October 16, 2016
Saturday Night Live’s sketch based on the second presidential debate was likely to get viral attention even without extra publicity from Donald Trump himself, who, between calling for the cancellation of SNL and claiming the election to be rigged, critiqued the impersonation, tweeting “Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks.” Responses on Twitter came fast and furious, and Mashable’s coverage of the sketch focused on Trump’s peevishness, addressing the candidate with the recommendation to read the dictionary definition of satire:
If you're Donald Trump and you're reading these words, follow this link. Everyone else: L-O-L.
The post was widely shared on Facebook and Twitter, and lookups for satire spiked accordingly.
Satire means “humor that shows the weaknesses or bad qualities of a person, government, society, etc.” The word’s origin is uncertain, but one theory holds that it comes from the same root as saturate and satisfy, going back to the name of a Roman salad composed of different ingredients, a term that was then used for writing intended to mock and criticize that mixed quotations and genres.
Quid Pro Quo
Definition: something given or received for something else
When it trended: October 17, 2016
Two tweets by Donald Trump that used the term quid pro quo within the space of a day sent people to the dictionary to look up the meaning of the Latin phrase. Both tweets were on the subject of Hillary Clinton’s emails; the second used a Politico headline:
State Dept. official accused of offering 'quid pro quo' in Clinton email scandal
Quid pro quo means “something given or received for something else” or “this for that.” The Latin words literally mean “something for something,” and were used in this way as far back at the 4th century. It’s used frequently in legal contexts, but originally was used in English in the 1500s to refer to the substitution of one medicine for another—sometimes intentionally (as when a given medicine was unavailable) and sometimes fraudulently. It then came to mean “a substitution” or “a mistake” in a general way.
Definition: a man
When it trended: October 19, 2016
Hombre, the Spanish word for “man,” which in English is often used in a slightly more informal fashion to refer to a “guy” or “fellow,” spiked 120,000% over the hourly average after Donald Trump used the word in the final presidential debate.
One of my first acts will be to get all of the drug lords, we have some bad, bad people in this country this have to go out. We'll get them out, secure the border and once the border is secured at a later date we'll make a determination as to the rest. But we have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out.
—Donald Trump, (transcript) Vox.com, 19 Oct. 2016
The phrase bad hombre has been in use in English since at least the 19th century.
Hoping to learn something of their religious belief, I have asked many questions, but the only information elicited was that there is a “Good Hombre” above, and a “Bad Hombre” down in the earth.
—Helen Carpenter, Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Feb. 1893
On his return to the livery stable, Brawley remarked: “I’m a bad hombre.”
—The Los Angeles Times, 22 Jun. 1896
We also saw a spike in lookups for the words ombre ("an old three-handed card game popular in Europe especially in the 17th and 18th centuries") and ombré ("having colors or tones that shade into each other —used especially of fabrics in which the color is graduated from light to dark"): it seems that many people unfamiliar with the spelling of the Spanish word left off the initial H.
hombre:🚶 a man— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) October 20, 2016
ombré: 🌈 having colors or tones that shade into each other #debatenight
Definition: to expose the sham or falseness of
When it trended: October 19, 2016
Debunk spiked in lookups during the presidential debate after it was used by Hillary Clinton:
Well, first of all, what he just said about the state department is not only untrue, it's been debunked numerous times. But I think it's really an important issue, he raised the thirty years of experience.
Debunk means “to expose the sham or falseness of,” and comes from bunk, meaning “nonsense,” which is short for bunkum, which, appropriately enough, is a word that entered English from American politics. A congressman from Buncombe County, North Carolina in the 1820s gained a reputation for irrelevant and inappropriate statements from the floor of the House. The term buncombe became bunkum and then bunk by 1900. Debunk was in use by the 1920s.
Definition: a sample piece (as of fabric) or a collection of samples
When it trended: October 19, 2016
Swatch, "a sample piece (as of fabric) or a collection of samples," rose improbably to the top of our lookups during the third and final presidential debate on October 19th, 2016. The reason for this spike was not the geopolitical implications of textile remains; it was because many people heard Donald Trump apparently use the word swatch instead of swath in the phrase “vast swatches of land.”
When swatch first entered English in the 1500s, it named something very useful—a tag or tally people attached to cloth they were sending to the dyer to mark ownership. Dyeing was a time-intensive process, so dyers dyed many merchants' stock at the same time. Owners would collect their dyed cloth by finding the cloth with their swatch on it.In short order, swatch was applied to any small sample of fabric. The verb, while common among knitters and crocheters, is not well-known outside of fiber arts.
Swath entered out language in the 14th century, with an original meaning of “a windrow of cut grain or grass left by a scythe or mowing machine.” It now most commonly has the sense of “a long broad strip or belt” (as of land).
When it trended: October 19, 2016
The splendidly evocative (and apparently semantically broadened) word nasty became one of our most searched-for entries after Donald Trump uttered it in a caustic aside during the third and final presidential debate.
CLINTON: Well, Chris, I am on record as saying that we need to put more money into the Social Security Trust Fund. That's part of my commitment to raise taxes on the wealthy. My Social Security payroll contribution will go up, as will Donald's, assuming he can't figure out how to get out of it. But what we want to do is to replenish the Social Security Trust Fund...
TRUMP: Such a nasty woman.
—(transcript) Vox.com, 19 Oct. 2016
Nasty has been a part of our language for a considerable length of time, with attested use dating back more than 700 years. It has had a variety of meanings, almost all of which are decidedly negative in tone (“filthy to the point of exciting disgust,” “morally reprehensible,” “characterized by a sharp lack of sportsmanship, generosity, or good nature,” etc.).
Some supporters of Hillary Clinton were quick to take to social media sites in an attempt of linguistic reclamation, invoking the word in a positive manner.
RT if you're a nasty woman and it's made your life a freakin' pleasure— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) October 20, 2016
The positive sense of nasty, although greatly outnumbered by the negative senses, is not as recent as one might imagine. There is a good deal of written evidence of nasty used to denote “attractiveness” as far back as the early 19th century.
"She is a nasty looking gal," implies she is a splendid woman. I know not by what singular change this meaning has been given to the word nasty, but certain it is, that expressed above, it is considered among the class to which it has reference, as highly complimentary.
—The Knickerbocker, Jan. 1834
”Sling a nasty foot,” means to dance extremely well; and “a nasty looking gal” implies a splendid woman.
—Henry Cook Todd, Notes upon Canada and the United States, 1840
You did’nt know Sal, Squire, did you? She was an uncommon nasty-lookin gal, and—
—The Rover, 9 Nov. 1844
There is a possibility that the renewed attention being given to nasty will cause the word to continue to take on positive meanings. We do not, as a matter of course, take positions in such matters; our goal is to catalogue the language, and we do not seek to issue mandates or recommendations regarding its course. However, if we were to do so, it is possible that we would make a plea for the resurrection of one of the other 19th century expressions mentioned in the citations above: sling a nasty foot.
Definition: to confuse, perplex, or fluster
When it trended: October 24, 2016
Bumfuzzle was one of our most searched for words after many people encountered the word in The New York Times and found themselves, well, bumfuzzled (the word means “to confuse, perplex, or fluster”).
“I’m bumfuzzled by the whole thing,” said Mr. Georgas, now the president of Cravens. “I don’t think she’ll win the state. But I think she’ll close the margin closer than anybody has.”
—Manny Fernandez, The New York Times, 24 Oct. 2016
We are not entirely certain where bumfuzzle comes from; one possibility is that it is descended from dumbfound, which became dumfoozle, and then bumfoozle, before settling on the spelling articulated in this article.
Bumfuzzle appears to have originated in the American south in the middle of the 19th century, and despite the ease with which it rolls off the tongue, and the delight it elicits in well-nigh everyone who hears it, has not managed to escape its dialectical roots and enter into everyday use.
Everything sent over the wires in relation to it is of that provoking style that old Bullion used to call the “willy—wonty—donty—canty.” It’s all “perhaps”—“perchance”—“may-be”—“seemingly,” and other nice verbal dodges. The idea seems to be to completely bumfuzzle the people, if we may be allowed so classical an expression.
—The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, WV), 27 Sept. 1858
When it trended: October 26, 2016
Agitprop (“propaganda; especially: political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art"), rose sharply in lookups on the morning of October 26, 2016, after The New York Times used it while reporting on Donald Trump’s nascent media programming.
Essentially agitprop presented as news, the program is fueling speculation that Mr. Trump wants to start a network, purveying news and opinion tailored to the candidate’s worldview.
—Michael M. Grynbaum, The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2016
Agitprop has been in use in English since 1925, although the meaning has broadened somewhat since the word was first used. It was borrowed from the Russian Agitprop, which was itself a shortening of Agitatsionnopropagandistskiĭ otdel, which may be translated as “Agitation-Propaganda Section (of the Central Committee, or a local committee, of the Communist Party)”.
Both the responsible members and the staff of these courses will be under the supervision of the “Agitprop,” or Agitation-Propaganda Committee of the Comintern, and their activities are expected to cover a wide field.
—The Times (London, UK), 30 Apr. 1925
In its initial few decades of use agitprop was applied primarily to this Soviet committee; in the middle of the 20th century it began to be used to refer to political propaganda of indeterminate origin.
Definition: relating to the thing that is being thought about or discussed
When it trended: October 28, 2016
Americans got another October surprise when FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee noting that, due to an unrelated investigation, "the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation" of how Hillary Clinton handled emails during her tenure as Secretary of State.
Though the FBI later cleared Clinton a second time, the news sent many people to the dictionary to find what, exactly, pertinent might mean.
Pertinent itself is first attested to in written English in the 14th century. It refers to having decisive relevance to a matter, and it is, through its French root, related to the English word pertain.
Definition: a principal source or supply
When it trended: October 28, 2016
Mother lode spiked in lookups on October 31 following a widely reported remark made by Donald Trump at a campaign stop. He was speaking about the recent FBI announcement that a laptop used by an aide to Hillary Clinton will be searched to see if any emails found on it reveal classified information.
Trump said: “This could be the mother lode.”
Mother lode in this context means “a principal source or supply.” It originally was used in reference to mining, meaning “the place where the largest amount of gold, silver, etc. in a particular area can be found,” and referred to underground ore deposits known as lodes or veins. Lode goes back to an Old English word that meant “path,” “waterway,” or “canal,” and came to refer to a deposit of ore that fills a rock fissure. It was initially used in the mid-1800s to refer to quartz mines in California.
Definition: a statement which indirectly suggests that someone has done something immoral, improper, etc.
When it trended: November 2, 2016
Lookups for innuendo spiked after President Obama answered a reporter’s question about the investigation into Clinton's email practices. The question followed the FBI’s announcement that emails sent and received by an aide to Hillary Clinton would be the subject of a new investigation. This announcement has been criticized by many lawmakers and commentators as being unusual so close to election day.
The president said:
I do think that there is a norm that when there are investigations we don’t operate on innuendo, and we don’t operate on incomplete information, and we don’t operate on leaks.
Innuendo means “a statement which indirectly suggests that someone has done something immoral, improper, etc.” and is a synonym of hint or insinuation. It comes from the Latin verb nutare, which means “to nod,” and literally translates as “by nodding” and, figuratively, “by hinting.”