Snowden and the Blizzard Made a Latin Word Suddenly Very Popular

A newsworthy, 2,000-year-old pair of syllables
More
Reuters

Peter Sokolowski is a lexicographer and editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster. This means, perhaps most importantly, that he has access to their trend data. Sokolowski can see, ahead of anyone else, which words more people than usual are searching for in the company’s online dictionary.

Today, he noticed a confluence:

Folks were looking up inclement: Sokolowski guessed it was a result of the massive snowstorm that just blew through the northeast U.S. And people were consulting the definition of clemency, too, just as journalists and politicians have called for clemency for Edward Snowden.

Both words turn on that same root, -clement: The former adopts the negative prefix “in-” and means “stormy” or “un-mildly wet”; the latter is its noun form and means “mercy.” Both words hail from the Latin clemens, meaning merciful, mild, moderate. Roman society, too, emphasized the noun of clemens, clementia. It meant “forbearance,” and even “humanity.” Julius Caesar made it a theme of his regime—and now it’s politically relevant again (or, perhaps, as it always is), as our journalistic-political-meterological community has used it.

It’s a pleasing confluence, if a random one. These two sounds in one word, traveling in the language for over 2,000 years, have now achieved a certain kind of popularity again. It’s one of those little societal micro-trends we only know about it because our references are networked, because the ambassadors of that information—like Sokolowski—think to share it.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Wild Vacation in the Pacific Northwest

A not-so-ordinary road trip, featuring extra-tall art bikes, skateboards, and hand-painted vans


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In