Wednesday Words: From Divas to Dickens and More

NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary includes 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

The definition of defiance: iconoplasts

An iconoclast, as you may remember from European History class, is a person who attacks cherished beliefs; a breaker and destroyer of sacred images. One of the more sacred images in America is that of the never-aging starlet on the red carpet, and culture bloggers have coined a name for the women who defy the skin-stretching, forehead-ironing trends: iconoplasts, as in “Let’s cool it on the plastic surgery.” The National Post points to leading ladies like Anjelica Huston, who is on the February cover of WSJ Magazine baring her facial tree rings (and showing that we all wrinkle in time).

Fighting for bookworms: lawfare

Lawfare is the art of using precedents instead of morning stars, waging battle against one’s enemies through the dense rules of justice with fists clenched firmly…around a pen. More formally, lawfare can refer to one country challenging another’s foreign policy or military via legal channels.

In a recent article about a suit against former U.S. defense officials, an indignant Wall Street Journal writer defined lawfare as “an effort to undermine the war on terror by making U.S. officials afraid to pursue it for fear of personal liability.” The word could also be applied to, say, the ongoing combat over gay marriage, which, after this week’s ruling, may soon take this art of war to the nation’s highest court.

(MORE: The Gay Marriage Decision: Is It Too Narrow to Reach the Supreme Court?)

Sign of the times: abbrevs

Dropping off a couple syllables here and there has (totes) been all the rage for years. A joke going around when I was in college was that if something is really “so hot right now,” it should be described as “suh huh ruh nuh.” This week, The Economist dug deeper into the appeal of vocal abbrevs like the ushe (the usual), cazh (casual) and my plezh (my pleasure), which, the writer notes, may be more about the fun sounds we get to make than anything else.

Political parlance: the enthusiasm gap

If the 2008 election was a dramatic season finale, 2012 may prove to be a mid-afternoon Seinfeld rerun. Pols are referring to the lower voter turnouts and less excitement among the electorate as evidence of an “enthusiasm gap.” Democrats have been forced to reckon with President Obama as a man rather than a dream, they say, leaving a lull on the left. Meanwhile, many Republicans still cite themselves as dissatisfied with their choices, while they cast ballots in divisive primaries.

The question still remains as to how much enthusiasm will be generated by the time the general election rolls around, and who will benefit if it does or doesn’t. Regardless, if apathy spreads, NewsFeed suggests upgrading the term to an “enthusiasm chasm.”

Happy anniversary to: bah humbug!

Sure, this week saw the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ first breath rather than Scrooge’s first grumbling. Still, the brain that brought the world bah humbug was born, and language-lovers have been paying homage. Linguist Ben Zimmer, for example, rounded up many of the phrases Dickens helped popularize in a recent column, from on the rampage to butter-fingers to put the kibosh on.

Yet many of Dickens’ most beautiful musings aren’t embedded in popular culture. Take, for example, his description of a cruel man in Nicholas Nickleby; the man’s heart, he wrote, “lay rusting in its cell, beating only as a piece of cunning mechanism, and yielding no one throb of hope, or fear, or love, or care for any living thing.” Gorgeous. Also, a good passage to have on hand if you’re feeling particularly bitter toward a certain someone this coming February 14.

LIST: Top 10 Non-Dickens Books for Dickens Fans