More Than Words

Posted on February 15, 2013 by Marian Salzman

[Originally published on Stamford magazine’s website.]

As a trendspotter, my eyes tend to be forever focused on the future, but one of my favorite ways to look back is through various linguists’ and lexicographers’ annual words of the year lists. For 2012, the rearview mirrors at the major dictionaries focused on big cultural trends and attitudinal shifts, although I’m not sure they found any new words that will permanently alter the American or global vocabulary. (Then again, I’ll bet that no thoughtful parent, especially in or around Fairfield County, will name their newborn “Sandy” for years to come.)

Merriam-Webster based its 2012 list on searches on its website,, and was therefore more of a list of trending topics and familiar terms that needed looking up in the context of the presidential campaigns than new ideas. Its top 10 are capitalism and socialism (tied for first), touché, bigot, marriage, democracy, professionalism, globalization, malarkey, schadenfreude and meme. More interesting from a cultural-linguistic standpoint is the site’s user-generated Open Dictionary for new words and slang, which on a recent visit included food-insecure (not having consistent access to food) and peripatologist (someone who trains the blind to travel independently).

Across the Atlantic, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries chose GIF—as a verb, meaning to use snippets of video to create clever moving images on Tumblr (like these)—as their word of the year. Their shortlist also included eurogeddon (the feared financial collapse of the countries using the euro as a common currency), super PAC, superstorm and YOLO (you only live once). And their highbrow progenitor, the Oxford English Dictionary, picked a more distinctly British word, one you’d have to leave there to know but whose appeal, once you think about it, has relevance in the U.S. too: omnishambles, a term from a BBC political satire that refers to a situation that’s chaotic from every angle. (We had plenty of those over here, too.)

But it’s the list from the American Dialect Society (ADS) that best sums up the mind and mood of Americans at the end of each year. Unlike its dictionary competitors (if there is such a thing as linguistic word-of-the-year competition), this group waits until the full year has been completed.

As the ADS’ website states, its vote is the longest-running—23 years and counting—and participated in by linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians (yes, these are separate disciplines), historians, researchers, writers, editors, students and independent scholars. That said, the society adds that “in conducting the vote, they act in fun and do not pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language. Instead they are highlighting that language change is … entertaining.” The chosen words—actually “vocabulary items” that can be words or phrases—aren’t necessarily brand-new, but they have to be “newly prominent or notable” in the given year.

Most newly prominent or notable in 2012? Hashtag. It prevailed over YOLO, fiscal cliff, marriage equality, 47 percent and Gangnam style (all of which I think need no explanation here, though just to be sure, the last is the Korean pop music phenomenon that recently surpassed a staggering 1 billion views on YouTube; there’s no doubt this one is here to stay).

Even more entertaining were the secondary awards. For most useful: a close race between YOLO and -(po)calypse and -(ma)geddon, with the latter prevailing in a runoff, plus hate-watching (following a TV show despite disliking it) and beardruff (beard dandruff). For most creative: mansplaining (a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience), alpacalypse (the Mayan “end of the world” forecast for Dec. 21, 2012), gate lice (airplane passengers waiting to board; this won the category) and dancelexia (inability to execute dance moves). And for most outrageous: Dunlop effect (“belly done lop over the belt,” formerly known as a muffin top), legitimate rape (what Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin claimed rarely results in pregnancy; the category winner), slut-shaming (stigmatizing a woman for “inappropriate behavior”) and butt-chugging (an alcohol enema, used in fraternity hazing—yikes!).

In all seriousness, the major words of the year point to substantial trends, and the “most likely to succeed” from the ADS’ vote do that even more: This time those were fiscal cliff, superstorm, marriage equality (the category champ), big data (large collections of digital information used by marketers, and at the center of debate about privacy with sites such as Facebook and Google) and MOOC (massive open online course, something we’ll see more of given the staggering costs of traditional higher education.)

This mix is in keeping with ADS trends. The word of the year has varied among social media/tech terms and political hot-button words: occupy in 2011, app in 2010, tweet in 2009 (with google—note the lowercase—as word of the decade), bailout in 2008, subprime in 2007 and Plutoed in 2006.

Huh? Plutoed? For anyone who has forgotten, Pluto (as a verb) means “to devalue,” a reference to when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto didn’t really fit the definition of a “planet” after all. Oh, well—most of their selections have been spot-on.

Even though I was still dazed and confused, I certainly thought so when a word I popularized beginning in mid-2003—metrosexual—was named the ADS word of the year the following January.


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