“Meaningless Buzzwords”?

I read that a political commentator, whom I will not name, asserts that five particular terms are “meaningless buzzwords.” Labeling these particular words “buzzwords” sent me to my language sources to discover whether my understanding of the word is faulty. Here are definitions from my two main dictionaries. buzzword: noun, Originally and chiefly U.S. a … Read more

A Plumb Interesting Set of Words

When I saw the following passage on the Simon Schuster site, I was plumb surprised: When twelve-year-old Jamie Dexter’s brother joins the Army and is sent to Vietnam, Jamie is plum thrilled. I expect one of the last major publishers to get their spellings right. The words plum and plumb are homophones, but not synonyms. … Read more

Urgency, Exigency, and Moonshots

A reader asks: Can you explain clearly the difference between urgency and exigency? Thank you. Also, any thoughts on the concept or process of “moonshoot”? Heard the term when President Biden was talking about cancer. The nouns urgency and exigency are not synonyms, but they are related in thought. Exigency An exigency is an urgent … Read more

Career and Careen

A reader asks: Could you clarify whether a car “careens” or “careers” off the road? Are both usable? The original meanings of the words are quite different. Career stems from horse-related activities, and careen has a nautical origin. Career Career functions as a noun and as a verb. The noun has changed more over time … Read more

Honest, Candid, and Frank

I’m always glad to receive topic suggestions from readers. Sometimes I may not quite understand what is wanted, but comments can still trigger a train of thought leading to a post. Recently, a reader complained about “Gen Z’s use of honest in place of candor or frank.” Lacking examples of the perceived misuse, I could … Read more

Addendum to Legal Terms in the News

A recent post about legal terms in the news drew several interesting comments from readers, prompting this addendum. One reader pointed out that I’d omitted the term “stare decisis.” As I recall, “stare decisis” is the very term that led me to write the post in the first place, but somehow, I managed to leave … Read more

Legal Terms for Reading the News

As investigations, hearings, and trials flood the news media, a short glossary of legal terms may be useful to readers. Anyone who has watched enough Law & Order episodes probably already knows quite a few legal terms, such as warrant, subpeona, voir dire, and mens rea. Here are some terms and examples from recent news … Read more

“Elite” Is Not a Dirty Word

Used mostly as a noun or as an adjective, elite derives from an Old French verb meaning “to choose.” The elite are “the Chosen.” As a noun, elite is “the pick or choice part of society or a specific group of people thought to be superior in terms of ability or qualities when compared to … Read more

What Does “Mien” Mean?

Until recently, I thought everyone agreed on the meaning of mien. Dictionaries do. Someone’s mien is their general appearance and manner, especially the expression on their face, which shows what they are feeling or thinking.—Collins Dictionary a person’s look or manner, esp. one of a particular kind indicating character or mood.—Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words … Read more

“Bully,” a Word with a Split Personality

Bully is one of many English words that have undergone semantic degeneration or pejoration. Beginning as a pleasant word, bully is now associated with one of the lowest forms of human behavior. The origin of the English word is obscure, but it may come from Dutch boel, “lover (of either sex). Boel could also mean … Read more

Supremist, Supremacist, and Agent Nouns

Reader venqax poses a question about the use of the four-syllable agent noun supremacist in preference to three-syllable supremist. On the topic of “new” words, I’m curious about *supremacist*, as in the apparently omnipresent white supremacists. Why not “supremist”? There is often a quick response to unnecessary elongations like preventative and orientate (talking to Americans! … Read more

Amelioration: A Nice Semantic Shift

Semantics is the branch of linguistics concerned with meaning in language. Students of semantics trace the ways that words and phrases change meanings over time. Semantic change—also called semantic drift, semantic shift, semantic development and semantic progression— takes different forms. One type of change is amelioration: the development of a more favorable meaning for a … Read more