Welcome to NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of the vocabulary of our lives — including useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).
Latest lawyerese: fantasy forensics
The defense lawyer in the Casey Anthony trial used this term to describe the prosecutors’ attempt to link Anthony to the murder of her daughter. “I’d like to call this next phase the state’s fantasy of forensics,” Jose Baez scoffed. “Phantom stickers, phantom stains … no DNA, no fingerprints, nothing.” Given Anthony’s not-guilty verdict yesterday, it seems the metaphor was sustained.
Other courtroom jeers: When two Libyans were put on trial in 2001 for an airplane bombing in Scotland, the defense mocked the state’s case as an “inference upon an inference upon an inference—leading to an inference.” In a 1978 murder trial of a Manson family member, the prosecutor went for poetic mockery. “She wasn’t operating under any diminished mental capacity,” he said, “but a diminished heart, a diminished soul.” And one hopes that somewhere—in some glorious moment—a lawyer has simply broken into a slow, sarcastic clap.
Food review: hot dog
Multiple media outlets celebrated this year’s hot dog eating contest by looking back at the history of those enigmatic meat treats. In an NPR interview, linguist Ben Zimmer supplies the theory (as he has before) that the name was invented by “a Jamaican-born, German-speaking former circus strong man who plied his wares” in New Jersey in the late 19th century. Fittingly, the townspeople called this man “Hot Dog Morris.”
A doggy world: The word dog can refer to a treacherous man or a clever, cheery person (as in, “You old dog!”). Dog can also reference a promiscuous person, an ugly person, as well as just any old person (as in, “Yo, dawg.”). And a “dog” can be a prison guard, a sausage, an informer or a failure. But perhaps the best dog-term is the 17th-century English verb to condog, which, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, meant “to agree.” As in, “Lady Chettam should not be wearing that petticoat.” “Oh dear. I totally condog.”
International neologism: incompetlicit
In a bit about Pakistan’s failure to locate Osama bin Laden inside its borders, satirical newsman Stephen Colbert imagines a conversation between two partners in the War on Terror. “If they weren’t complicit, they were incompetent,” one says. “Not necessarily,” the other replies. “They could be incompetlicit. It’s where you’re secretly helping our enemies, but you’re really bad at it.”
Colbertisms aplenty: Perhaps the most famous Colbertism is truthiness, which he defined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” A cousin Colbertism is Wikiality, the reality created—as on user-generated Wikipedia—when some majority of people are convinced that something is true, regardless of whether it is actually true. This is “bringing democracy to knowledge,” Colbert has said. “Definitions will greet us as liberators.”
Hazard vocab: “mega-fires”
Conservationists use the term mega-fire to describe historically destructive wildfires, such as those that have been raging in Arizona and New Mexico, and that may soon spread to Colorado. The mega-fire season is looking to be a severe one (as the flood season has been), so this is a word you’ll be seeing again. Though some articles have said the name is new, it has been used since at least the 1990s.
What’s in a name: The “mega-” prefix can suggest vastness or a highest level or rank, but given the way the term has been used in popular culture (see: MegaMan, the 1980s), it may seem a little bit silly when used in an official capacity; mega-fires do, after all, sound like nomenclature we would use if anime enthusiasts—or perhaps Jeff Spicoli— ran the U.S. Forest Service. But at least they’re not calling them super-duper fires.