witch hunt

The phrase witch hunt is surprisingly recent. One might expect it to date to the seventeenth century, when real hunts for supposed witches were rampant across Europe. But its use in relation to witches only dates to the late nineteenth century and its political use only to the twentieth.

Starting around 1960, the political use of the term split into two meanings. Previously a witch hunt had always referred to the persecution of a minority, often those on the political left, by those in power. But in the second half of the twentieth century the term also began to be used to refer to investigations and prosecutions of government officials by the opposition.

The rise of this newer meaning is ironic. Previously the term had applied to oppressed groups, notably women. But the new sense is that of the politically powerful and privileged assuming the mantle of victimhood.

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The term meritocracy arose in socialist circles in the 1950s as a derisive term for a new system of class oppression. The first known use of the term is by Alan Fox in the journal Socialist Commentary of May 1956. Fox writes:

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Reinhold Aman (1936–2019)

Reinhold Aman died earlier this month. Aman was one of the leading experts on profanity and the publisher of the journal Maledicta (“The International Journal of Verbal Aggression”), which ran from 1977–2005).

He was also, shall we say, an interesting character. He was, at one point, imprisoned for sending threatening material to his ex-wife, her lawyer, and the judge who handled the divorce case. I must say, however, that in my few dealings with him, he was always quite polite and gracious.

Jesse Sheidlower has penned an obit.

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Suborn is a verb that is usually heard in the context of lying under oath, and indeed roughly half of the instances of the verb in the Corpus of Contemporary American English are in the phrase suborn perjury. The verb clearly means to induce someone to commit a crime, but where does it come from?

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ADS 2018 Word of the Year

Every year I report on the American Dialect Society’s selections for Word of the Year. There are lots of organizations that propose such a word, and I do so myself, but I generally only write up the ADS choice. That may be because the ADS, an organization of academic linguists who study language for a living, has been doing it longer than anyone else, and it may be because in past years I’ve participated in the nomination and selection process. But this year, I’ve been late to the process. (I was traveling when the announcement was made and am only getting to it now.)

As a result, I’m not going to give a detailed report, essentially regurgitating the ADS press release. Those interested in a detailed account of the vote tallies and the winners in all the sub-categories can read the press release. Instead, this year I’m going to write about what a Word of the Year means and the ADS selection process.

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Ultima Thule, Thule

On 1 January 2019, New Horizons space probe passed Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule. Almost every news report of the encounter says that the name means “beyond the edges of the known world.” But that is not exactly the case. Ultima Thule is not a vague, undefined location. It is a specific place in the North Atlantic, although exactly which place it refers to is uncertain to us today and various classical and medieval writers may have used the name to refer to different places. It has been used in the metaphorical sense that the news articles describe, but that’s not the name’s meaning. The metaphorical sense is akin to referring to Timbuktu, a very real place in North Africa, as metaphor for somewhere distant and inaccessible. 

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Thule, Ultima Thule

See Ultima Thule

Good-bye to Facebook

I’ve deleted the Wordorigins.org Facebook page. It only contained links to the site and no content that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

Facebook changed the interface for its web pages as of today, and I couldn’t find a way to post something new. (I’m sure there is a way, but it wasn’t obvious, and I couldn’t be bothered to figure it out.) I don’t think many people interact with the site through Facebook. (I’ve never given them money to boost the page’s profile.) I don’t think many will miss it.

Facebook is a mess and getting worse. I’m glad to be done with it. (I still have a personal Facebook account, but I only friend people I know in meatspace.)

The Twitter feed is still active.

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Hogmanay is a Scottish dialect word for New Year’s Eve or a present given, especially to children, on that day. The word is recorded in Latin as early as 1443:

Et solutum xxxj die decembris magn. hagnonayse xijd. et parv. hagnonayse viijd.
(And paying on the thirty-first day of December a great hogmanay of twelve pence and a small hogmanay of eight pence.)

It’s use in English is recorded in 1604:

William Pattoun delatit to haue been singand hagmonayis on Satirday.

The origin of Hogmanay is not certain, but it most likely comes from the Middle French aguillanneuf or a variant thereof. The Scottish-French alliance of the late sixteenth century introduced a number of French words into Scottish dialect, and this is likely one of them. The first element of the French word is unknown, but the final element is likely a variation on l’an neuf (the new year).


American Heritage Dictionary, fifth edition, 2018, s. v. Hogmanay.

Dictionary of the Scots Language, s. v. hogmanay, n.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, November 2010, s. v. hogmanay, n.

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2018 Words of the Year

As in past years, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. During the year as each month passed, I selected one word that was prominent in public discourse or that was representative of major events of that month. Other such lists that are compiled at year’s end often exhibit a bias toward words that are in vogue in November or December, and my hope is that a monthly list will highlight words that were significant earlier in the year and give a more comprehensive overview of the entire period. I also don’t publish the list until the final week in December; selections of words of the year that are made in November, as many of them are, make no sense to me. You cannot legitimately select a word to represent a year when you’ve got over a month left to go.

My list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and living in Texas to boot), them’s the breaks—although I have tried to limit the number of Trump-related terms; given his ability to dominate the news cycle day in, day out, the list would otherwise be all Trump all the time.

I interpret word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, hashtags, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily, or even usually, new, but they are associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention or relating to some event that happened during it.

So, here are the 2018 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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