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February 05, 2016  |  Friday words, 2016-02-05  |  3544 hit(s)

It's February and it's the week that the primaries start in the US for the presidential election, omg. As it happens, both of these things are applicable for this week's Friday words.

Here's a term I just ran across that pertains to the election season: Overton window. This refers to a range of acceptable notions in political discourse. Suppose that one extreme is no government at all, and the other extreme is a totalitarian government. The Overton window describes the area in the middle where the ideas lie about how much government is acceptable to most people. Here's the picture on Wikipedia that illustrates the Overton window:

I ran across this term in an article that talks about how both sides have been moving the Overton window. For example, the left has brought gay marriage, once unthinkable, into the Overton window. On the right, ideas like banning immigration for Muslims have become acceptable political discourse. Anyway, it's an interesting term for thinking about political science.

And now February. I imagine that a lot of people know who's to blame for the names of many of our months: them Romans. January is for Janus, the two-faced god. July is modestly named for Julius (Caesar), August for Augustus. Sept-, Oct-, Nov-, and Dec- are -embers based on numbers: 7, 8, 9, and 10.

But whence February? The lexicographer Katherine Barber has a surprising (to me) explanation: februa refers to purification; February was a month of purification. Even more surprisingly, Barber says "It's possible the word derived ultimately from the same Indo-European root word that gave Greek its word for sulphur, which was used in purificatory rites." (She has other interesting February Naming Facts, so go read the rest of her post.)

One word origin that isn't surprising at all is the term leap year, which we'll enjoy again this year. Perhaps there will be terms not yet known to me that refer to February 29.

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