Word of the Week — trending

Whoa! Lexicographers are suddenly cool, according to the New York Times, Feb. 12, 2017. “Lookups” of words and phrases have increased and “bibliophiles have become social media stars.” Print dictionaries are selling briskly. (A lexicographer writes dictionaries and a bibliophile loves or collects books.)

To demonstrate it’s coolness, the Merriam Webster website reports topics under the heading “trending now.” Trending? In the past, the word was used to modify other words, e.g. “The stock market is trending up.” The definitions in the Merriam Webster dictionary are limited to that meaning. Current usage of the word as a stand alone, meaning something like “currently popular” is not listed.

Defenders of the status quo are up in arms. See www.word-detective.com and www.urbandictionary.com which calls the new usage of trending a “mutilation of the English language” and blames Twitter’s designation of “trending topics” as a cause of this degeneration.

Merriam Webster added a thousand new words to its dictionary this year. New usages appear as needed, especially these days in political discussion. Merriam Webster online reported a spike in inquiries regarding the verb to vet after Donald Trump’s statements about the issuance of the travel ban. Vet, used colloquially, meaning to evaluate for possible approval or acceptance, is derived from the word “veterinarian” and not related to the word “veteran.” But it’s not a new word. As early as 1901, the term was used to mean to submit for careful examination, especially of a horse before a race. Now it’s applied to refugees and visa holders and individuals proposed for cabinet positions.

Legal metaphors flood the cable news channels. Haul out the Black’s Law Dictionary. To litigate means to seek a legal remedy by bringing a lawsuit in court. Relitigating the same issue, by the same party, over the same facts is generally not allowed in the law. One of the goals of the judicial system is finality. We get our day in court, we appeal if we must, but eventually, appeals are exhausted and the verdict is final. The rule that keeps us from going back and doing it all over is called estoppel. But nothing is final when the newscaster has twenty-four hours to fill.

The loose talk about relitigating prior political disputes might have originated with assertions in the Republican primaries that Chris Christie would be the best man to prosecute Hillary Clinton. A prosecutor is a person with responsibility to represent the state in a criminal proceeding, and of course, the defendant is deemed innocent until proven guilty. Not true in the court of public opinion. The overheated rhetoric led to cries of “lock her up!” which, of course is not permitted in the USA without due process.

Campaigns speeches were routinely referred to as closing arguments, another image borrowed from courtroom procedure. Typically, the judge limits the length of closing arguments. Exhausted voters looked in vain for someone to set the timer.

The very nature of truth is a topic of argument on TV. In Black’s Law Dictionary, a fact is something that actually exists; an aspect of reality. Evidence is something that proves a fact. In the land of TV talk, alternative facts, has become a punch line. As the language evolves, the lack of clear definitions creates circular discourse. It would have been easier to have a sensible discussion if the President’s surrogate had said, “The President disputes those alleged facts.”

We the Wordies say Whoa! Things change fast. The author of the New York Times article wrote that this current use of whoa as an exclamation to express a strong emotion, such as astonishment or alarm, wasn’t recognized as a “variant.” The Merriam Webster editor tweeted, “But we’re pretty sure you have a right to say it.” It’s an old word, derived from Middle English, and since the 15th century it’s been used as a command to an animal to stand still. Today the exclamation of surprise is included in the definitions section.