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Word of the Week: ‘spectrum’

spectrum 2.jpg

We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘spectrum’.

Researchers at Merriam-Webster, the American online dictionary, have found that the use of the word ‘spectrum’ in everyday language has grown dramatically in the last decade. 

No Westlife fans, it’s not because the 90s Irish boyband is making a comeback – and their new album ‘Spectrum’ is a breakout search term on Google Trends. It goes deeper than that. Hold onto your linguistic hats because we’re delving into the history and ever-evolving meaning of the word. 

 What does ‘spectrum’ mean?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘spectrum’ as a noun refers to: “the set of colours into which a beam of light can be separated, or a range of waves, such as lightwaves or radio waves.” 

It can also refer to: “A range of different positions and opinions between two extreme points.”

The word first appeared in 1610 as “an apparition or spectre” and was derived from the Latin ‘spectrum’, meaning “appearance, image or apparition”.

The related term, ‘spectral evidence’, refers to evidence based on dreams and visions, often relied on during the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts, US, in 1692-93. Witnesses would claim the accused witch’s spirit – or spectre – appeared to them in a dream or vision. Sounds legit.

A few years earlier in 1672, the word had been used by the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton in rather different terms. Newton coined the word ‘spectrum’ to describe the outcome of a crucial experiment – one which produced a stunning smorgasbord of colour as light was refracted through a prism. 

‘Spectrum’ in the figurative sense

While in the past, understandings of ‘spectrum’ have been based on the visual, today the word is used in the figurative sense.

‘Spectrum’ came to be used to denote “an entire range of something” from the 1930s onwards.

If someone is described as being ‘on the spectrum’ it suggests they exhibit one of the broad range of symptoms associated with autism. 

The ‘political spectrum’ however, is a means of classifying the wide-ranging political positions that span from the progressive left, to the conservative right. 

Gender is now commonly understood as being on a fluid ‘spectrum’ instead of as a rigid and measurable male/female yardstick – indeed a poll in 2015 found that 50% of millennials agreed with the statement that “gender is on a spectrum”.

Homelessness, perfectionism and social media usage have all also been described as being on a ‘spectrum’. So where does it end? 

Lexicographer Kory Stamper thinks that the idea of the ‘spectrum’ is too narrow because it still positions the thing concerned – be it politics, gender, pizza topping preference, or your tea brewing method – as between two points and thus excludes more “radical or amorphous thought”. 

Where’s Speak on the ‘spectrum’?

With this in mind, here at Speak Towers we’re vowing to open ourselves up to new thinking – and move the afternoon biscuit choices beyond the traditional bourbon/custard cream ‘spectrum’. We may even introduce Garibaldis.

Read more:

Word of the Week: ‘heatwave’

Word of the Week: ‘emoji’


Roisin McCormack