The first and only vice-presidential debate was held on October 4, 2016 in Farmville, Virginia. Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, Donald Trump's running mate, and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Hillary Clinton's choice for number two on the ticket, exchanged ideas and sometimes insults.

This debate was relatively calm and it was more substantive than recent debates have been, with participants who aggressively disagree on how to accomplish things but share some sense of what needs to be accomplished. Below are some interesting vocabulary words from the debate put in a broader context in terms of the debate and the language as a whole. A more comprehensive list of captivating words from the debate can be found here.


Governor Mike Pence used the word feckless to describe the leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

I saw what the American soldier won in Operation Iraqi Freedom. And to see the weak and feckless leadership that Hillary Clinton was the architect of and the foreign policy of the Obama administration... is deeply troubling to me.

Feckless has an interesting history as a word in general, but it also has an interesting history in this very campaign season. Back in the fifth Republican primary debate, in December of 2015, Governor Chris Christie called President Obama "a feckless weakling." Governor Christie has been a vocal supporter of the Trump/Pence campaign since he ended his own bid for the White House, but we can only speculate if he contributed to Pence's choice of words in this instance. Feck comes from a Scottish version of the more familiar word effect, so feckless is "without effect." Something that doesn't have an effect could be neutral, of course, but the sense here is without positive effect, incompetent, useless.


Hoping to be useful, effective, and not feckless, Senator Tim Kaine used the verb form of relish very early on in the debate:

But my primary role is to be Hillary Clinton's right-hand person and strong supporter as she puts together the most historic administration possible. And I relish that role. I'm so proud of her.

The verb relish means to really enjoy something, to soak it in completely. Senator Kaine is responding here to a question about his readiness to be President should something happen to Secretary Clinton. Kaine is communicating how much he enjoys and values being Hillary Clinton's second-in-command before more fully addressing the specific question asked.

Most people associate the word relish with the noun form, which refers to the stuff made from pickles that some like on their hot dogs. So how did a word referring to pleasure come to refer also to a neon green condiment? Originally, before the "enjoyment" meaning, the verb relish meant "give flavor to." The way Tim Kaine is using the verb came from the more basic "flavor" sense, which was first recorded in the 1560s. Once you have a word meaning "give flavor to," the path to the noun "something that gives flavor to something else," like the pickle relish, would seem relatively straightforward, but the earliest attestation for a reference to a relish-like condiment is 1797.


Some people find the idea of relish on their hot dogs deplorable. Governor Pence quoted Secretary Hillary Clinton when he used the word deplorable during the debate. He used it both to deflect criticism from Donald Trump and to attack Secretary Clinton.

I mean, to be honest with you, if Donald Trump had said all of the things that you've said he said in the way you said he said them, he still wouldn't have a fraction of the insults that Hillary Clinton leveled when she said that half of our supporters were a basket of deplorables. It's... she said they were irredeemable, they were not American. I mean, it's extraordinary.

Pence is referencing a Hillary Clinton speech of September 9th, where she said the following:

To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it.

Clinton later said she regretted the remark. Deplorable means shockingly bad and inexcusable, low and shameful. Later in her remarks of the 9th, Clinton said some of these people she was referring to are "irredeemable," and that's the essence of deplorable — things are so bad that there is no method of fixing things, no coming back from the sad state you are in. Beyond help, things that are deplorable only arouse a mixture of disgust and pity.


Not to be pitied, at least not for financial hardship, is anyone who can afford to pay their bills — anyone who is, in other words, solvent, a word Senator Kaine used in reference to Social Security during the debate:

And Social Security has enabled people to retire with dignity and overwhelmingly not be in poverty. We have to keep it solvent. And we will keep it solvent. And we'll look for strategies like adjusting the payroll tax cap upward in order to do that.

Keeping Social Security solvent means that the government will be able to fund it, to pay for it. What's the connection between being able to pay your debts and the other solvent, like the colorful liquid that dissolves grease on your kitchen counter? What they both have in common is the word solve, which originally meant both to disperse and remove and to fulfill. So someone who is solvent fulfills their financial obligations and the solvent for stains disperses and removes them.

The vice-presidential debate was a chance to get to know two men America hasn't seen a lot of since the party conventions this past summer. Whether they echoed a time earlier in the campaign or a time in the 16th century, the words these candidates used formed the basis of how we will judge them, and the presidential hopefuls at the top of their respective tickets, on Election Day, November 8, 2016.