End of an Era: Word Lookups From Obama’s Farewell Speech

President Barack Obama’s second and final term is at an end. He gave his farewell speech Tuesday January 10 in Chicago, the city that launched his rise to national prominence.

Word choices and speech patterns of our world leaders are a constant source of discussion (and comedy skits), as every administration has a style and at least one tic. Long known as an effective public speaker, Obama’s speech was peppered with words that interested listeners enough to check them out on Dictionary.com. We’ve highlighted a few of those top lookups, along with the quote from Obama’s speech that likely caused the spike.

Creed

“And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.” 

This is a very old word, going back to before the year 1000. It’s a mixture of Middle EnglishOld English and Latin, but is well-known and used relatively often in modern English. Calling something a creed can refer to any system (or codification) of belief or opinion.

Autocrat

“That order is now being challenged — first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets and open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.”

Greek in origin, circa 1795, autocrat means “an absolute ruler, especially a monarch who holds and exercises the powers of government as by inherent right, not subject to restrictions.” Our difficulty index indicates that only some English speakers likely know this word—are you one of them?

Solidarity

“But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity — the idea that for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.” Also: “There have been moments throughout our history that threatens that solidarity.”

This word has a French origin dating back to 1840. Solidarity means a “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests, as between members of a group or between classes, peoples, etc.” For example, “to promote solidarity among union members.”

Sanctuary

“They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”

Sanctuary has a variety of definitions, such as a sacred place, or in the context of Tuesday’s speech, “any place of refuge; asylum.” The difficulty index isn’t too high here—many English speakers likely know this word.

Sectarianism

“For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression.”

From 1810-1820, sectarianism means “sectarian spirit or tendencies; excessive devotion to a particular sect, especially in religion.” This is a tough one—our difficulty index ranks this word as one that few English speakers are likely to know. Sectarianism is a word you might hear on the nightly news, in many cases used in reference to various Middle Eastern conflicts.

Rancor

“America, we weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen not just as misguided but as malevolent.”

Rancor is from Middle French, Middle English and Late Latin, catching on between 1175-1225. It means “bitter, rankling resentment or ill will; hatred; malice.” It also makes a really great name for a Star Wars monster.

Quarrel

“Understand, democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued. They quarreled. Eventually they compromised.”

Quarrel can be a noun, “an angry dispute or altercation; a disagreement marked by a temporary or permanent break in friendly relations,” or a verb used without an object. “To disagree angrily; squabble; wrangle.” All English speakers likely know this word, though “fight” would probably be the first choice for most people, don’t you think?