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Malpractice, Malarkey, And Other Words From The Second Democratic Debate


The Democratic candidates squared off this week in their second, two-night debate in Detroit, Michigan, ahead of their party primaries.

As the candidates made their pitch to voters for why they should top the Democratic ticket against Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, we were watching some of the standout or hot-button words they were using—and that drove viewers to look them up in the dictionary.

Here’s our roundup of top terms that created buzz on during the second Democratic debate. For the first five words, we can thank the 10 candidates from the first night of the debate on July 30, and for the second five, the remaining 10 debating on July 31.


John Hickenlooper, former governor of Colorado, explicitly asked viewers to look this word up during the first debate: “Google it, check it out.” And you did. Searches for malpractice jumped up 1,600% on compared to July 29.

Hickenlooper noted that, while malpractice is closely associated with “doctors and lawyers,” as indeed it is, it can also be applied to “public officials … Donald Trump is malpractice personified.”

Aside from its legal sense for “failure of a professional person, as a physician or lawyer, to render proper services” through ignorance, negligence, or criminal intent, we also more generally define malpractice as “any improper, negligent practice; misconduct or misuse.” The prefix mal– denotes something “bad,” “wrongful,” or “ill.”


Beto O’Rourke, who previously represented El Paso in Congress, helped start a conversation in the first debate on reparations when he mentioned support for a bill proposing a commission to study reparations for African Americans. Author and activist Marianne Williamson then addressed the topic of reparations, and searches for the term shot up 511% from the previous day.

In current discourse in the US, reparations—almost always in the plural—specifically refers to forms of apology and compensation provided to the descendants of slaves due to the continuing repercussions of slavery, segregation, and discrimination on the lives of Black Americans. The underlying idea of the word reparation is the act of “repairing,” of making amends for a wrong or injury done.

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To proliferate is “to grow or produce by multiplication of parts,” or more generally, “to increase in number or spread rapidly and often excessively.” It’s based on Latin roots that literally mean “bearing offspring.”

In political contexts, what’s usually being discussed as proliferating is nuclear. Nuclear proliferation concerns the development and spread of nuclear weapons, technology, and materials, particularly in countries that don’t already have them.

On the first night of debates, the subject of nuclear proliferation surfaced in an exchange between Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Montana Governor John Bullock about the preemptive use of a nuclear weapons (i.e., using such weapons against a hostile power first, rather than in retaliation to a strike).

Nonproliferation, in global affairs, refers to agreements limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. During the debate, Bullock offered a variation of this term with his de-proliferation, or “reducing” nuclear weapons.


One of the main reasons we like to write these roundups is to help you learn more about some less familiar or technical words that emerge from the podiums—or podia.

Senator Warren mentioned “investing in historically redlined neighborhoods” in her consideration of systemic racism in the US. As we define it, redlining (or red-lining) is “a discriminatory practice by which banks, insurance companies, etc., refuse or limit loans, mortgages, insurance, etc., within specific geographic areas,” especially in communities of color or low-income areas.

The term redlining dates back to the 1960s, and it draws on the idea of a bank, insurance company, or other institution outlining such areas in a red line (of warning or rejection) on maps.


Yada yada yada

One candidate who creates a lot of chatter around the water cooler is Marianne Williamson, whose description of a “dark psychic force” of hatred she criticized Donald Trump for “bringing up in this country” inspired some post-debate memes.

We don’t have an entry for the exact phrase dark psychic force in our dictionary, but we have to give credit Williamson for her word power. Elsewhere in her answers, she used the terms bigotrywonkiness, and yada yada yada.

Yada yada yada (sometimes just yada yada) means “blah-blah-blah,” with the dismissive force of “and so on” or “meaningless chatter.” The expression, which has been evidenced since the 1960s, was popularized by a 1997 episode of the sitcom Seinfeld.

But, it pricked our—and many viewers’— ears anew when Williamson issued a yada yada yada while answering a question about gun safety.


Can’t see the forest for the trees

During night two of the debates, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said “let’s not lose the forest for the trees” in a back-and-forth about the nitty-gritty details of healthcare plans.

The phrase can’t see the forest for the trees, and variants like Gillibrand’s, is said of “someone too involved in the details of a problem to look at the situation as a whole.” It continues to be useful expression—though it’s centuries old, documented as an English proverb, cannot see the wood for trees, in the 16th century.


Former Vice President Joe Biden put malarkey in the lexical spotlight during the 2012 vice presidential debate. He did it again on the July 31st debate, firing off a “bunch of malarkey” in exchanges on Medicare for All. Searches for malarkey soared 2,054% over the night before.

If malarkey sounds like an older slang for “BS,” it’s because it is. It’s recorded in the US in the 1920s, and its origin is obscure, though explanations as colorful as the word itself have been proffered.



We define malarkey as “speech or writing designed to obscure, mislead, or impress”—or, another older slang term, bunkum, originally “insincere speechmaking by a politician intended to please local constituents.” (That’s one term we can confidently track down. It’s taken from Buncombe, a county in North Carolina mentioned by a congressman in a debate on whether to admit Missouri as free or slave state.)


Debates can be vocabulary lessons—and civics lessons. Washington Governor Jay Inslee called for an end to the filibuster in the Senate. The word trended up in search interest on 273% during the debate.

Put simply, the filibuster allows a minority of senators to obstruct a vote on a piece of legislation unless 60 senators decide to end debate on it. Filibustering can involve legendarily long speeches to achieve such obstruction.

Filibuster is ultimately related to freebooter, a kind of “pirate” or “buccaneer.” How does a term for a “pirate” get to the Senate floor? Well, it’s long story …


… and when speaking of filibusters, we believe Governor Inslee was searching for the word antediluvian to characterize the Senate practice. Alas, it came out as “antediluvinal”—but we’re not judging! It’s a tricky set of syllables, and impressive word to use in the heat of the debate.

Antediluvian, here,  means “old-fashioned, primitive.” It literally means “before the flood” (ante-, “before,” dilivium, “deluge”) in Latin, a term originally referring to the Biblical flood that destroyed the world, as described in Genesis.

We know what you’re thinking. Is there are a word for … after the flood? Yep: postdiluvian.


Searches for busing—along with its alternate spelling, bussingsignificantly trended up during the first Democratic debates in late June. Interest in the word continued into this second round as California Senator Kamala Harris pressed Biden on his past opposition to desegregation busing in the 1970s.

Busing specifically refers to “transporting students by bus to schools outside their neighborhoods, especially as a means of achieving socioeconomic or racial diversity among students in a public school.”

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