Undesigning Words of the Week – Part 1

This two-part edition of Words of the Week undergoes a redesign in focus and form. This is an undesigning effort to enhance your vocabulary, define the public sphere, and traverse a series of topics in one go.

Words. They are just words. So, use them how you want.

I beg, have begged, and will beg to differ.

Today, I am undesigning my approach to this blog series. Today, I will also explain how my use of “undesigning” is wrong.

Two kitchen or bathroom walls, sans the entire house. Taken in Mgarr, Malta.

First, some exhibition exposition:

I started this exercise as a spoof. I enjoy weekly sports rankings to see who is number one, who fell the furthest, and who has jumped up by surprise. Amazingly, all team ranking lists have remain stagnant for the past seven weeks.

While I am not a news junkie, I do stay in tune with what is happening in th world. Twitter and a few select news sites keep me informed enough to be relevant. As I would bounce between browser tabs hosting Merriam-Webster and my news sources, I began to notice some overlap in content. Words I would see in Merriam-Webster’s most popular words for the day or the week were also seen in headlines and ledes.

For example, how often do you hear the words “fascism” and “racism” thrown around (rather carelessly) in the media? And “socialism” or “Draconian” on the other side? These pesky words were popular in the news and as search items in Merriam-Webster. This is what inspired my Words of the Week series.

The national and sometime global conversation can be summarized, I posit, based on the words found in the MW’s most popular words of the week. Of course, this theory is a stretch at times. Parts of speech often populate the top twenty-five list for the week. What is going on in the world that would have people rush to the dictionary to look up what “noun” means?

Nonetheless, this is how I want to approach this blog series again. I started out this series with a deep look into current events, using the top twenty-five words of the week as my starting points.

And, by Jove, would not you know it? I was learning some things while reading the dictionary, too. Writing and researching the words of the week offered me opportunities to comment on the usage of words in our society, and to also illuminate something interesting about other words.

The purpose of this blog series was two-fold, and it will be again two-fold:

  1. Defining the word; telling how the word is used and its origins.
  2. Why is it so popular now? What news stories can be drawn from it?

When applicable, I will add a third fold to the word if it is relevant to me. Sometimes, the usage of the word fits into my own life, and it offers time for self-reflection.

In the end, I hope that whoever reads these posts will learn a new word or two, get a snapshot of what it is being discussed in the public sphere, and extract a laugh or a thought from my perspectives and reflections.

Words of the Week – May 4-11, 2020 (1-10, part one)

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Online Dictionary’s top 25 most popular words of the week.

1. Fascism

Last week’s ranking: 5

Meaning and usage

Or Fascism (capitalized), a noun, “a political philosophy… that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized, autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

First known use was in 1921. It is now used one thousand, nine-hundred and twenty-one times per day by the media of any leaning.

Why it is in the news

Why is it not in the news? Left-wing governments are accused of practicing fascism with strict social distancing measures, and right-wing governments exude fascism by default, apparently.

Elon Musk (he is becoming popular in this blog) last week decried that Americans should be allowed to return work, and that many of these lockdown measures are fascist-like. Indian president Modi has popped up in my newsfeeds lately, with articles claiming that he is running a fascist government.

It is certainly Musk’s tweet that helped fascism Falcon Heavy up the list this past week.

2. Noun

Last week’s ranking: 2

Meaning and usage

If you have followed this blog series for long enough, you will know that I have grown weary of defining what a noun is. For the sake of consistency, despite just two words into the list, here it goes (again): a noun is “a word that is the name of a subject of discourse… and that in languages with grammatical number, case, and gender is inflected for number and case but has inherent gender.”

In the languages that I have studied (Spanish, German, Polish, and Maltese), gender plays a bigger role than in English. Knowing the gender of a noun in German is critical; native German speakers will cringe if you der Boot rather than das Boot. (They might cringe anyway if you use this word as an example of the few German words you and which you over-inflect with an outrageous German accent.)

Why it is in the news

To play the broken record titled Beating the Dead Horse by Harry and the Shin-splints, I cannot pinpoint why noun stays afloat on this list. Of course, this list does come from an online dictionary, and I am trying to equate the relevance of certain current events with words on this list, but to me it feels like noun (and verb and adjective, frequenters of this list as well) should be an understood part of speech, and thus should not be a preeminent member of this list. It is the same as typing into a Google search “How to use Google search.”

3. Pandemic

Last week’s ranking: 1

Meaning and usage

Origin of pandemic lies in late Latin: pandemus (pan, belonging to all the people, and demos, or populace.

One frightening fact of coincidence: first known use of pandemic was in 1666.

Why it is in the news

Are in you lockdown of any degree? Do people distance themselves socially from you? You are in the news. You are in a pandemic. You are famous!

4. Vital statistics

Last week’s ranking: unranked

Meaning and usage

A plural noun meaning “statistics relating to births, deaths, marriages, health, and disease.” I am then told by Merriam-Webster to compare this word to demography.

Why it is in the news

Google News-ing “vital statistics” pulls up a wide range of vital statistics records from counties all across the US. Many of them focus on new births in those areas, but now some news publications are reporting on deaths far more frequently, especially in light of the ecdemics going around.

You want all the vital statistics you can handle in one sitting? Check out this report from the Brookings Institute. The report analyses the severity and rapidity of infections and deaths across many countries due to the coronavirus, and it points out the “unreal dichotomy” of the top high-income countries (HICs) shouldering the “mortality burden.” Reporting accuracy is questioned in the report. Why would countries like the US, the UK, and Belgium, among others, have much, much higher death rates than poorer, less-able countries?

The report summarises: “We argue that the dichotomy in the mortality stats between high-income and developing countries is likely very significantly overrepresented. This will apply to the static comparison across countries and also the dynamic progression over time.”

Figure 1. The distribution of severity: Cumulative severity of COVID-19 and proportionate mortality from top causes (percent)
A figure from the Brookings Institute report. It “gives a sense of the unequal distribution of the severity of the mortality burden over the entire period of the outbreak, which also differs across countries.” Source: John Hopkins University; World Health Organisation.

5. Adjective

Last week’s ranking: 7

Meaning and usage

Adjective can also be used as a transitive verb, according to Merriam-Webster’s, meaning “to make an adjective of” or “to express or describe using many adjectives.”

This is curious. The example used to illustrate adjective in Merriam-Webster is “slick, glowingly adjectived phrases” (something Andy Logan had said).

Would this mean that one could “curse and adjective the living daylights” out of someone?

Why it is in the news

I came across this fascinating letter to the editor from Natasha Stefanou-Konidaris of London SW13, UK (imagine Michael Palin reading that name and address).

In the letter, the writer is on a crusade to restore “pandemy” and “epidemy” in the English language. Pandemic and epidemic are in fact adjectives, but the entire globe uses them as nouns (the Financial Times drew the ire of Natasha specifically for this one). “Would users of the English language (including FT writers) dare challenge the established linguistic anomaly and restore the correct term pandemy?” Natasha closes.

Pandemic and epidemic (and therefore, perhaps, my dark horse, ecdemic) are substantive adjectives, meaning that they “stand in the place of” nouns; they replace nouns.

“The meek (an adjective) shall inherit the earth.” No Earth inheritance for Natasha (but I do want to see pandemy return).

6. Quarantine

Last week’s ranking: 4

Meaning and usage

A noun meaning “a period of forty days.” However, there are other peculiar meanings of quarantine:

  • “The period often of 40 days during which a widow is permitted by law to remain in her deceased husband’s principal home without being obliged to pay rent to the heirs.”
  • “A term (as of 40 days) during which a ship arriving in port and suspected of carrying serious contagious disease is forbidden all intercourse with the shore.”
  • “A stoppage of travel, communication, or intercourse imposed as a precaution against contagion or infection or the spreading of plant or animal pests.”

Which kind of quarantine do you want to experience next?

Why it is in the news

Newsfeeds are one part reports on governments’ quarantining requirements, and another part Golconda of self-help blogs offering anywhere between 3-5 ways to overcome quarantine fatigue.

I have rather enjoyed quarantine. I enjoy working from home, being home with my wife, and having the time and flexibility to take care of the home. I only selfishly wish that professional sports were not in quarantine. It is AFL season, and NBA and NHL playoff seasons.

You need, you need, you need, you need to see this film.

7. Coronavirus

Last week’s ranking: 8

Meaning and usage

Recently revised!

I suspect that the revised portion of this entry relates to the mentioning of the plural form of coronavirus: coronivirus. Just kidding, it is coronaviruses.

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Online Dictionary

Why it is in the news

Where do I begin? It, the coronavirus, began in Wuhan, and now every aspect of your life is affected by it, thus making nearly every bit of news connected to the virus.

8. Furlough

Last week’s ranking: 6

Meaning and usage

This word comes from the Dutch word verlof, which literally means “permission.” This prompts me to suspect of a global misuse of the word, and here is why:

In Merriam-Webster, a furlough is “a leave of absence granted by an employee to an employee; especially : a leave of absence granted at the employee’s request.”

Now, a final definition for furlough does say “a temporary lack of employment due to economic conditions : layoff.” This is not the primary definition of furlough, though.  

Are we using “furlough” because it sounds nicer than “layoff”? It does not seem right to say, “because there is a global crisis that is shutting down economies left and right, so I am giving you permission to not work and earn money.” Rather, it should be, “the economy is breaking, and I can’t pay you, so I have to lay you off.”

Why it is in the news

Its usage in the news, sadly, is prevalent as so many Americans and world citizens are being let go from their jobs. In the US alone, according to the Washington Post, 20.5 million people lost their jobs in April. That brings the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent, the worst since the Great Depression. Analysts quoted from the Washington Post article say that it could take years to get back to the previous 3.5 percent unemployment rate.

It is amazing to see how quickly some companies laid off their employees. The strict lockdown measures were not even two months old and the likes of Disney and BuzzFeed and several others had to axe a healthy chunk of their workforce to stay afloat.

9. False

Last week’s ranking: unranked

Meaning and usage

Tied for the first most popular answer on true-false quiz, false is an adjective meaning “not corresponding to truth or reality.” The list of definitions for false is extensive, and its first known use comes from the 12th century.

Why it is in the news

I am surprised that this word has not appeared on this list in the past given that the term “fake news” is common lexicon. False makes its debut in Words of the Week thanks to the release of a documentary panned as bearing false information called “Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19”, a video that is now removed from many online platforms.

Then there is the twilight of a “competition of ideas and approaches” towards American history between two projects: New York Time’s 1619 Project and the Woodson Center’s 1776 project.

In the blue corner, the 1619 Project, recently rewarded a Pulitzer Prize, aims to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” In the red corner, the 1776 project wants to share a more “optimistic” representation of American life and “challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery.

This is a battle of “false” narratives (depending on how you interpret history) that I am eager to watch.

10. Undesigning

Last week’s ranking: unranked

Meaning and usage

Undesigning seems like a Trump-ism. It looks unnatural at first glance, something akin to “misremember.” My gut said “this is not a verb”, but my brain ran circles within itself to make the justification that this is a verb by saying, “but there is no antonym for the verb to design, so this must be the opposite of designing.”

I should have listened to my gut.

By definition, undesigning is only an adjective. I cannot undesign as a verb, as in “I designed the plans, but my boss hated them, so he undesigned and redesigned new ones.”

Yet its usage in the media is wrong. “Undesigning” is an adjective meaning to have no ulterior or fraudulent purpose; to be sincere. Now, we are have a case of irony: the media, often accused of not being undesigning, is using undesigning as a verb. The examples are below:        

Why it is in the news

A traveling exhibit called Undesign the Redline may be the culprit. The aim of the exhibit is to educate visitors on how redlining as a policy, though having been illegal for decades, is still shaping our economy.

The other major usage I found came from the mouth of Elon Musk (his second-consecutive appearance in the blog), and the editorial board from which quoted Musk used the misused word in their headline: “Elon Musk is undesigning his Mars rocket as fast as he can.”

Musk is quoted in the articles as saying “the thing I am most impressed with is, what did you undesign”? This is a case of assuming a smart person (and a very, very smart person indeed) uses all words correctly, forever.

This misuse of undesigning remains true if Merriam-Webster’s definition holds as relevant and modern. I discovered only one other use of the word in my online search “Undesigning” was a failed web design trend a decade ago, according to a Fast Company article. The trend was said to favour content over design – an “undesigning” or a lessening of flash and sparkle of web content design.

Trusting the media on truth is one matter. Trusting them on their proper word choice is another.

2 thoughts on “Undesigning Words of the Week – Part 1

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