Words of the Year

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This past weekend, the American Dialect Society had its annual meeting and chose the Words of the Year in categories ranging from "Most Creative" to "Least Likely to Succeed." Jason Riggle, a computational linguist who teaches at the University of Chicago, was one of the voters. He joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

Members of the American Dialect Society vote on 2011's Word of the YearDebating the merits of Tebowing (posing for a photo on one knee like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow) versus bronies (men who watch My Little Pony) may not seem like work for academics. But that’s what hundreds of professors, linguists and grammarians did Friday to decide the American Dialect Society’s word of the year.

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Neither Tebowing nor brony was up for overall word of the year—brony eked out a victory for least likely to succeed—but since 1990 the society votes on what it thinks the most widely used and culturally important word has been. The Occupy movement was on the society’s mind for the grand prize, with 99 percenters, job creators, and occupy all finalists, and occupy winning in a runoff.

The society compares the award to TIME’s person of the year: the award doesn’t express approval, but notes the subject’s significance (TIME also chose the protestor as its person of the year.)

“They don’t have to be praise- or blame-worthy, just significant,” said Allan Metcalf, the society’s executive secretary and an English professor at MacMurray College. “We’re curious about what’s going on in American English.” 

Deemed worthy enough for word of the year doesn’t guarantee the word will enter standard usage, Metcalf said, just that it has taken hold of the public conscious for a particular moment. Some past words of the year are still closely tied with the year they first gained prominence, including app (2010), tweet (2009) and bailout (2008). But some are hardly used anymore, like millennium bug (1997) and Bushlips (1990).

“Some years there’s a word that is such an obvious choice that you can’t avoid it,” like 9/11 in 2001, Metcalf said. “But, in other years, it’s more random. In 1990, it was Bushlips, which supposedly meant ‘insincere political rhetoric’ because [President George H. W.] Bush said, ‘Read my lips. No new taxes.’ We had never heard it before, and we haven’t heard it since.”

Invented words, referencing specific people or quotations, frequently loose steam.

“Creating words doesn’t guarantee they’ll be used. More often than not a popular word is created inadvertently because people find it useful,” Metcalf said.

Another factor in sustaining a word’s place in everyday language is how intense the public fixated on it. WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction, 2002) captured public attention for years, while truthiness (2005), popularized by Stephen Colbert, was a brief fad.

“Language reflects culture, and if our culture is unfocused in a given year, then the language can be unfocused,” Metcalf said.

As for this year’s winner, Metcalf expects occupy will leave common usage soon after the movement dies.

“I suspect Occupy [the movement] will not keep on going, but will reflect an historic moment,” he said.


Past words of the year include tweet, 9/11, e- (as in e-mail), World Wide Web, and other widely-used phrases. But not all ADS Words of the Year become permanent additions to our vocabulary. Here's a few that either never caught on or have fallen out of favor:

Plutoed: when someone or something is demoted or devalued, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet (2006)

Truthiness: the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true, as popularized by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report (2005)

Red state, blue state, purple state: together, a representation of the American political map (2004)

Chad: a piece of waste material created by punching cards or tape, which gained prominence after the Bush v. Gore Florida recount (2000)

Newt: to make aggressive changes as a newcomer, from Newt Gingrich's first year in office (1995)

Not!: said after a sentence to indicate sarcasm, as in, "You're so smart. Not!" (1992)

Bushlips: insincere political rhetoric, from George H. W. Bush's line, "Read my lips, no new taxes." (1990)

What word do you think symbolized 2011? Post your comments below or sound off on our discussion board!

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