Words of the Week

The Words of the Week - Nov. 18

Dictionary lookups from Dickens, politics, and poetry

assorted peppermint humhug candies pouring from a glass jar
Photo: Getty Images

Mints in mint condition.


Though Thanksgiving is still a week away, humbug got a bump in look-ups earlier this week, which was likely the result of holiday creep in general and the release of Spirited, a new film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol in particular.

Director Sean Anders’ reimagining of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” … spotlights the point of view of the helpful apparitions that guided old Ebenezer to turn his life around back in the day. … Yet “Spirited” dazzles most when going the extra mile for some humbug, usually via Reynolds’ modern miser.
— Brian Truitt, USA Today, 13 Nov. 2022

The origins of humbug are unknown, but the word first appeared in the 1700s referring to “something designed to deceive and mislead” as in “Their claims are humbug.” The Spirited review excerpt above uses a closely related meaning: “a willfully false, deceptive, or insincere person.” A shifty or shady person may also be said to possess humbug, defined as “an attitude or spirit of pretense and deception.” And when someone, such as Dickens’ infamous character Ebenezer Scrooge, says “Bah humbug!” they are employing yet another sense of the word as a synonym of nonsense or drivel. On a sweeter note, in the literal (as opposed to literary) world of Dickens across the pond (as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and elsewhere), humbug can also refer to a hard, usually peppermint-flavored candy.


As votes continued to be tallied for the 2022 midterm elections, rebuke rode a modest wave to an elevated position among the top lookups for the week.

Katie Hobbs has won the Arizona governor’s race against Trump-backed Republican Kari Lake, AP reported, and will become the first Democrat to win the post since 2006. … Secretary of State Hobbs’ win comes as a further rebuke to former President Trump, whose endorsed candidates lost in vital races for governor and control of Congress, as well as her Republican opponent’s prioritization of false claims about the 2020 election.
— Jeremy Duda, Axios, 15 Nov. 2022

We define the noun rebuke as “an expression of strong disapproval” and as a synonym of reprimand.


Haiku was looked up
Many times during the week.
Props to the poets.

[Prize-winning Vancouver poet Christopher] Levenson, now 88, opens his collection with a sorrowful epigraph from Yeats, but he clearly has drawn on other influences as well. Perhaps taking seriously the environmental economics slogan that “small is beautiful” or inspired by the lyric concision of haiku, this book is a treasure trove of short, epigrammatic verses, aperçus and poetic snapshots.
— Tom Sandborn, The Vancouver Province, 13 Nov. 2022

Both the word haiku and the poetic form to which it refers entered English near the turn of the 20th century. We define haiku as “an unrhymed verse form of Japanese origin having three lines containing usually five, seven, and five syllables respectively.” The “usually” here is important. As the Poetry Foundation notes: “In its original Japanese form, the haiku is often divided into 17 mora (a Japanese unit of syllable weight) and arranged in a single vertical line. However, in English there is no exact equivalent to the mora unit. As a result, in English and other languages, haikus are most frequently adapted into three lines of verse, usually unrhymed, composed of five, seven, and five syllables, adding up to seventeen syllables total.”


Lookups for absolutist rose this week in conjunction with a raft of articles and opinion pieces describing new Twitter CEO Elon Musk as a “free speech absolutist,” as he has also described himself in the past.

Elon Musk — a “free speech absolutist” — seems to make an exception for criticism directed at him. On Monday, Twitter fired two engineers who publicly challenged Musk on his technical chops, Bloomberg reported. The next day, Twitter reportedly fired over 20 more who posted negatively about Musk on the company’s internal workplace messaging app Slack, according to Platformer’s Casey Newton. It’s pretty standard for workers to get fired if they publicly blast their employer. First Amendment rights to free speech generally aren’t protected at work. But these firings seem to contradict Musk’s self-identity as a champion of free speech who bought Twitter with the mission of liberating it from heavy-handed content moderation that he felt unfairly censored users for expressing their beliefs.
— Shirin Ghaffary, Vox, 16 Nov. 2022

We define multiple senses of absolutism, including “advocacy of a rule by absolute standards or principles,” with the relevant definition of absolute here being “having no restriction, exception, or qualification.” It follows that an absolutist is one who advocates for a given rule without restriction, exception, or qualification.

Words Worth Knowing: ‘Serac’

This week’s Word Worth Knowing is, admittedly, a little cheesy. Serac is a noun that refers to “a pinnacle, sharp ridge, or block of ice among the crevasses of a glacier.” Connoisseurs of polar or mountaineering literature (or both!) will recognize serac from the works of their favorite authors and explorers, but turophiles will also delight in its origins: serac comes directly from the French sérac, a hard white cheese with a certain, ice-like je ne sais quoi.

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