The Words of the Week - May 31

Dictionary lookups from politics, the Supreme Court, and baseball


Felony was among our top lookups after Donald Trump was found guilty of 34 charges of this nature.

Trump guilty in “hush money” trial as jury hands down verdict on felony charges
– (headline) CBS News, 30 May 2024

We define felony as “a crime that has a greater punishment imposed by statute than that imposed on a misdemeanor,” and note that it is specifically a federal crime for which the punishment may be death or imprisonment for more than a year. In U.S. law misdemeanors, in contrast, are often defined as offenses punishable only by fines or by short terms of imprisonment in local jails. Originally, in English law, felony referred to a crime for which the perpetrator would suffer forfeiture of all real and personal property as well as whatever sentence was imposed. Under U.S. law, there is no forfeiture of all of the felon’s property, and it is not part of the definition. For certain crimes, however, such as some kinds of racketeering, specific property is subject to forfeiture.

‘Mickey Mouse’

Mickey Mouse was in the news last week, in a matter unrelated to the world of entertainment, after the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom used the term to refer slightingly to educational offerings.

Rishi Sunak to cut ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees to boost apprenticeships—University courses that don’t improve earnings face cull
— (headline) The Times (London, Eng.), 28 May 2024

We provide three adjective meanings for Mickey Mouse (which are independent of its use as the actual name of the character), and none of them are terribly complimentary: 1. too easy, small, ineffective, or unimportant to be taken seriously 2. being or performing insipid or corny popular music 3. annoyingly petty. It seems safe to assume that Sunak intended sense 1.

Mickey Mouse (the animated character, not the word) was introduced to the public in 1928, in the cartoon short Steamboat Willie. By the following decade the name was already being used in a figurative manner, and by the 1940s deprecating use had developed, employed specifically to describe corny music.

But the only ones I've heard who admit they are absorbed in “musical trade-marks” (otherwise known as “mickey mouse” music) and in other completely commercial devices are such men as Clyde McCoy who are so obviously corny that they find it worth while to admit it—like a funny looking gent who points out his defects and becomes a comedian.
— Bill Gottlieb, The Washington Post, 9 Apr. 1942


Recuse trended last week as well, after a Supreme Court justice announced that he would not be doing this.

Justice Alito declines to recuse himself in Jan. 6-related cases
— (headline) NPR, 29 May 2024

We define this sense of recuse as “to disqualify (oneself or another judge or official) for a proceeding by a judicial act because of prejudice or conflict of interest.” This is a fairly new sense, dating only from the early 19th century; prior to this the more common meaning of the word was “to challenge or object to (a judge) as having prejudice or a conflict of interest.” Recuse comes to English from the Anglo-French word recuser (“to refuse”), and can be traced back to the Latin causari, meaning “to give a reason.”


Statistics had a rare moment of public attention, after Major League Baseball announced that they would include historical statistics from the professional teams of Black American baseball players who were segregated from the white teams.

MLB integrates Negro League statistics into all-time record book with Josh Gibson now career batting average leader
— (headline) CNN, 29 May 2024

Statistics may be defined either as “a branch of mathematics dealing with the collection, analysis, interpretation, and presentation of masses of numerical data” or “a collection of quantitative data.” The word comes from the German Statistik, meaning “study of political facts and figures”; it can be traced back prior to German to the Latin word status, meaning “state.”

Words Worth Knowing: ‘esprit de l’escalier’

Our word worth knowing this week is more of a French noun phrase than it is a single English word, but it is worth knowing nonetheless: esprit de l’escalier, which may be defined in a literal manner as “wit of the staircase,” and somewhat more generally as “repartee thought of only too late, on the way home.” It may also be thought of as ‘the perfect cutting rejoinder that you only come up with as you are falling asleep.’