Words of the Week

Words of the Week - May 6

Dictionary lookups from the Supreme Court, Congress, and Twitter

woman with scientific equations in her head

This is not an overeducated woman


Autonomy spiked in lookups last week, as a result of the news that the Supreme Court was planning on overturning Roe v. Wade.

Leaked draft opinion represents 'seismic shift' in approach to privacy, personal autonomy: Gov. Wolf
6 Action News (Philadelphia, PA), 4 May 2022

Autonomy, as it is used in the above case means “the quality or state of being independent, free, and self-directing : individual or group freedom.” The word comes from the Greek autos, meaning “self,” and nomos, meaning “law.” Autonomy has other meanings, such as “the quality or state of being self-governing,” a meaning which is generally applied to countries (or regions), rather than to individual people.

’Stare decisis’

A number of legal terms also saw greatly increased coverage from the SCOTUS news, in particular stare decisis.

Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization – first reported on Monday night by Politico and confirmed as authentic on Tuesday by Chief Justice John Roberts – spends nearly 30 pages justifying the majority's defiance of stare decisis, the doctrine that calls for courts to stand by their own previous rulings.
— Alison Frankel, Reuters, 3 May 2022

Stare decisis is “a doctrine or policy of following rules or principles laid down in previous judicial decisions unless they contravene the ordinary principles of justice.” The term comes from Latin, in which it means "to stand by decided matters.” If you would like to casually use stare decisis in conversation, but feel unsure about how to pronounce it, try to remember that it more or less rhymes with “Mary! A Crisis!”


Overeducated was on the minds of many people last week, after a member of Congress claimed that this was a trait shared by many of the women who were protesting the potential repeal of Roe v. Wade.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is facing backlash after questioning how many “over-educated, under-loved” women have participated in protests supporting abortion rights after a draft ruling from the Supreme Court showed that the bench is poised to roll back Roe v. Wade.
— Mychael Schnell, The Hill, 4 May 2022

We define overeducated as “having too much academic education : more educated than is practical or useful.” Although we enter the word as a closed compound, it has in the past often been written as over-educated.

Overeducated has been in use since the late 18th century; our earliest citation comes from a novel published in 1788. In this earliest case, as in many that follow it, overeducated is used to refer dismissively to a woman.

To which Delamere, who had long foreseen the proposal, answered coldly, “that he was not inclined to marry at all; or if he did, it should not be one of those over-educated puppets.”
— Charlotte Turner Smith, Emmeline, the orphan of the castle, 1788

’Leak’ & ‘Blackmail’

Both blackmail and leak were featured prominently in a number of news stories last week, after a different member of congress claimed that a leaked video was an attempt to blackmail him.

GOP Rep. Cawthorn calls leaked nude video ‘blackmail,’ says he was just ‘being crass with a friend’
— (headline) CNBC, 5 May 2022

Blackmail most often means “extortion or coercion by threats especially of public exposure or criminal prosecution,” or describes the actual payment that is extorted. However, before the word had these meanings it meant “a tribute anciently exacted on the Scottish border by plundering chiefs in exchange for immunity from pillage.” The sense of mail found in blackmail is distinct from the mail that one sends through the postal service; it is found mainly in Scottish use (with the meaning “payment, rent”), and is thought to come from the Old English māl, meaning “agreement, pay.”

Blackmail did not begin to see use as a verb (with the general “extortion” meaning) until the middle of the 19th century. This was about the same time that leak took on its meaning that is relevant to Cawthorn’s situation: “to give out (information) surreptitiously.”

The doubting as to its existence was from the first confined to those who, in the simplicity of their ignorance, had not yet learned the substance of the correspondence that was furnished to Congress. And of course the believers are in great stress to learn who leaked the information.
The New York Times 21 Mar. 1855

Words You Should Know: ‘Maritality’

Our word you should know this week is maritality, defined in our Unabridged Dictionary of 1934 as “excessive fondness of a wife for her husband.” This word is the lesser-known spouse of uxoriousness, “the state of being excessively fond of or submissive to a wife.” We do not know at what point “appropriate fondness” for a husband or wife crosses the line and becomes “excessive fondness,” so please do not ask us to weigh in on any specific cases.

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