Wednesday Words: Herman Cain’s Semantics, Vampires and More

Welcome to NewsFeed's weekly highlight of our vocabulary — including useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue)

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David McGlynn

Hair-splitting of the week: settlement vs. agreement

Politician and former pizza magnate Herman Cain has been using some awfully cagey wording since allegations of sexual harassment were unearthed this week. Chief among them, Cain said he was “not aware” of any “settlement” with the women involved, though he later admitted that he knew about an “agreement.” According to ole Noah Webster, an agreement is an “understanding or arrangement between two or more people,” while a settlement is defined as “an agreement.” Which means Cain’s best course may be to explain that he thought reporters were referring to the establishment of a new colony. Oh, forehead slap!

Racism rumblings: Some conservative supporters rising to Cain’s defense have accused the media of “high-tech lynching,” and other actions suggesting that the hullabaloo is tied to Cain’s race. This refers to what Clarence Thomas said he was experiencing during his Supreme Court confirmation in 1991. (Thomas too had harassment allegations spring up during his vetting.) There is a long history of concern about stereotyping black men as “hypersexual,” particularly as a means of implying that they, more than white men, are subject to animal instincts. And this incident will, no doubt, find itself in some future treatises on the subject.

(MORE: Cain Unable: Have Harassment Claims Spoiled the GOP’s Last Chance for Inspiration in 2012?)

Corporate Cockney: “Huckleberry Finn”

There is, apparently, a cash machine in East London that speaks Cockney, as in the rhyming slang. The general formula for Cockney is to find a phrase rhyming with the actual word you’re referencing and then, often, to drop the part of the phrase that rhymes. (The classic example is substituting apples for stairs because stairs rhymes with apples and pears.) The ATM asks for the patrons’ “Huckleberry Finn,” meaning their PIN, and offers to display their balance of “sausage and mash,” meaning their “cash.” One can only hope it also refers to them as “guv’nor.”

Twain on the brain: Mark Twain, creator of Huckleberry Finn, was a master of witticisms—one of which is a wonderful reference point for all stories involving politicians, or other public figures, who say they misspoke. “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word,” Twain quipped, “is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Musical mockery: digital vampire

While most of the world slobbers over Apple’s every shuffle, much like the dog in Up when a squirrel happens near, musician Pete Townshend is lobbing colorful insults in the company’s direction. iTunes, he said, is like a “digital vampire,” sucking the livelihood from musicians as it nibbles commissions off every download. “Whether the public listen or not, creative writers and musicians should get paid if their work generates money by virtue of its mere existence on radio, television, YouTube, Facebook or SoundCloud,” he said, bravely ignoring the fact that attacking Apple is about as popular as eating puppies.

Vamp vocab: Vampires, beyond Twilight and True Blood, have proved especially fertile ground for metaphor in recent years—the most notable being writer Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman Sachs as a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” NB: This is a fine description to appropriate during a breakup, as in, “You’ve been a vampire squid wrapped around my face/heart/wallet for long enough!”

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Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.