Wednesday Words: Stephen Colbert Civics and Conspiracy Theories

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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).

Civics vocabulary, courtesy of Stephen Colbert: super PAC

It may sound like a jazzed-up Atari game or a top-of-the-line suitcase, but this term refers to a powerful vehicle for spending money in elections — and is closer, at least metaphorically, to Colbert’s description: “like a PAC that got bitten by a radioactive lobbyist.” Your average PAC, or political action committee, is a group organized to help gather money and push candidates into office with it. The “super” version takes advantage of a Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations, like the media company that puts on Colbert’s show, to contribute funds. And Colbert has decided to form his own for 2012.

Other super terms: If you don’t think you’ll weasel super PAC into conversation any time soon, here are some other options, all referring to varying levels of excellence: superbad, superfly, super saucy, supersonic. Or you can just go with the old but good super-duper.

(More on See the top 10 Stephen Colbert moments)

New slang term, accidentally courtesy of BP: spillionaire

ProPublica did an investigation into post-oil spill money trails and identified this class of money-makers. (And today just so happens to be the one-year anniversary of that spill.) Here is ProPublica’s definition:

Some people profiteered from the spill by charging BP outrageous rates for cleanup. Others profited from BP claims money, handed out in arbitrary ways. So many people cashed in that they earned nicknames — “spillionaires” or “BP rich.” Meanwhile, others hurt by the spill ended up getting comparatively little.

Other potential spin-offs: A pharmacist in the throes of work might feel like a “pillionaire.” A highly successful pickle-collector could be a “dillionaire.” And a flourishing fish-farmer might be called a “gillionaire.” (The nerdier you’re willing to get, the more boundless the possibilities become.)

(More on See pictures of the spill zone today)

Strangest-sounding school of thought: Birtherism

This refers, of course, to theory that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen and is therefore ineligible to be President. In the latest edition of American Speech, a journal put out by Duke University, Charles E. Carson reviews this and other -er words that have dominated politics in recent years. Among them are “deathers,” or opponents to health care reform “who claim it will result in … death to those deemed unworthy by the government,” and “Trig truthers,” or those who question whether Trig Palin is Sarah Palin’s biological son.

Some retro -er terms: Carson also revisits some from decades past. These range from the more mainstream “grassy-knollers,” who believe Lee Harvey Oswald was not alone in his plot to assassinate JFK, to the more-out-there “mooners,” who believe the landings were nothing but a big hoax. (Though Carson doesn’t mention it, there is presumably a subset of “cheesers” who have further suspicions about that little satellite of ours.)

(More on See “birther” in our list of the best buzzwords)

Most jarring descriptor: “Jihadi cool”

In a USA Today article out this morning, writer Mona Alami describes a strange niche market: al-Qaeda magazines. One, called Al-Shamikha, is apparently the Cosmo of the al-Qaeda world and “mixes beauty and fashion tips with articles encouraging women to push their husbands on the path of martyrdom.” One defense researcher quoted in the article said that such magazines are considered “Jihadi cool.”

Other magazines you probably didn’t know existed: Miniature Donkey Talk, Bacon Busters, Y’all — The Magazine of Southern People

(More on See more about Al Qaeda’s women’s magazine)

Word we need to start using: themself

Yes, we’ve all been taught to politely say “he or she” when a gender is unknown. This graceful solution, discussed by Oxford Dictionaries on their blog this week, simply turns the genderless themselves into a singular pronoun. Themself has long been employed by our British counterparts — to say things like “a doctor who treats themself is a fool” or “Anyone holidaying in Tuscany owes it to themself to spend at least a day in Florence.” It’s a time-saver, it avoids the awkward bulkiness of himself or herself and the more we use it, the more accepted it will become.

Contexts in which this would be useful: when referencing pets, when giving general advice to individuals we don’t know (as above), when discussing the relative merits of a baby dressed in neutral colors, in guidelines of pretty much any kind, when commenting on Calvin Klein ads

(More on See pictures of the new androgyny)