Saracen

Saracen is term for a Muslim that is primarily used historically to refer to Muslims during the medieval period and especially in reference to the Crusades. But it dates to antiquity, long before Islam arose as a religion, and its original sense was much more circumscribed. Its correct etymology isn’t all that interesting, but it does have a fascinating false etymology that circulated widely in Europe during the medieval period.

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Mecca

Mecca is a place name, a toponym, that has acquired a figurative meaning over the years. Literally, it is a city in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, to which devout Muslims are required to undertake a pilgrimage to at some point in their lives. Figuratively, it is used to refer to any place that attracts a certain group of people or that is the center of their activity, as in, Las Vegas is a Mecca for gamblers or the new mall is a mecca for shoppers. The pilgrimage metaphor underlying the figurative sense is obvious, but when did the sense develop?

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Judeo-Christian

Judeo-Christian has two main meanings. The first is a historical one, referring to the early Christian church made up of converted Jews, primarily in Jerusalem, in contrast to the Pauline churches made up of Gentiles that were scattered across the eastern Mediterranean. The second, and today more common, meaning refers to the common ethical and cultural values of Judaism and Christianity. This second meaning originally grew out of desire for inclusivity, but the term Judeo-Christian is now increasingly used to exclude other religions.

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Middle Ages / medieval

The Middle Ages, or medieval period, runs from roughly 500–1500 C. E., that is more or less from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance and the start of the modern era—a rather Eurocentric periodization.  Of course, the people of the era didn’t call themselves medieval or say they were living in the Middle Ages. Towards the end of the period, they would have called themselves modern, a word that is in use by 1456 in English and a century earlier in French. So when did these two terms come into use? And, while Middle Ages is a pretty obvious term for a period between two others, where did medieval come from? 

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medieval / Middle Ages

See Middle Ages.

deplatform

The verb deplatform is rather new. It’s not yet in the major dictionaries, so I’ll attempt a definition:

To disinvite a speaker from an event or to remove a user a from a social media platform due to their use of hate speech, engaging in harassment, or violation of the platform’s rules.

The earliest use of the term that I’ve been able to find is in a discussion of a video game that allows users to hit fascist protesters with a purse.

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Calvinball

Calvinball is the name of a fictional sport coined by cartoonist Bill Watterston in his syndicated comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. In the strip, Calvinball is a sport where the participants make up the rules as they go along. But the word has not remained within the confines of the comic and is now being used in other contexts where the “rules” are constantly changing.

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witch hunt

The phrase witch hunt is surprisingly recent. One might expect it to date to the seventeenth century, when real hunts for supposed witches were rampant across Europe. But its use in relation to witches only dates to the late nineteenth century and its political use only to the twentieth.

Starting around 1960, the political use of the term split into two meanings. Previously a witch hunt had always referred to the persecution of a minority, often those on the political left, by those in power. But in the second half of the twentieth century the term also began to be used to refer to investigations and prosecutions of government officials by the opposition.

The rise of this newer meaning is ironic. Previously the term had applied to oppressed groups, notably women. But the new sense is that of the politically powerful and privileged assuming the mantle of victimhood.

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meritocracy

The term meritocracy arose in socialist circles in the 1950s as a derisive term for a new system of class oppression. The first known use of the term is by Alan Fox in the journal Socialist Commentary of May 1956. Fox writes:

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Reinhold Aman (1936–2019)

Reinhold Aman died earlier this month. Aman was one of the leading experts on profanity and the publisher of the journal Maledicta (“The International Journal of Verbal Aggression”), which ran from 1977–2005).

He was also, shall we say, an interesting character. He was, at one point, imprisoned for sending threatening material to his ex-wife, her lawyer, and the judge who handled the divorce case. I must say, however, that in my few dealings with him, he was always quite polite and gracious.

Jesse Sheidlower has penned an obit.

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