Word Nerd: What’s in a Word of the Year?

We are constantly bombarded by new English words and meanings to words, so why not honour these innovations? To this end, since 1990 the American Dialect Society (ADS) has been electing annually a “word of the year.”

Not surprisingly, the fields that have been most dominant in providing important neologisms have been technology and sociopolitics/economics. For example, in the former, these words have previously been deemed “word of the year”: Hashtag (2012), app (2010), tweet (2009), Y2K (1999), e- (1998), WWW (1995) cyber (1994). In addition, in 2010, google was voted as “word of the decade.” In the latter category, winners were occupy (2011), bailout (2008), subprime (2007), truthiness (2007), WMD (2002). 9-11 (2001), chad (2000) bushlips (1990).

The term truthinesss was invented by Stephen Colbert and refers to the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true. You could say that Colbert envisaged the mindset of next decade’s Trump supporters.

Some of the choices have proved to be short-lived. In fact, the very first selection in 1990, bushlips had the shortest legs of all. It referred to insincere political rhetoric emanating from the mouth of George Herbert Bush. Another term that fizzled out was the 1999 choice Y2K.

It was an abbreviation for “the year 2000.” Many people believed that the advent of the year 2000 would create computer chaos because programmers represented the four digit year without the first two digits making the year 2000 indistinguishable from the year 1900. Needless to say a cyber-apocalypse never ensued leading to the term Y2K not having any great currency in the new millennium.

As American English is but one of the two major flavours in which English can be savoured, it is only fair that we see British selections for words of the year. To this end, Oxford Dictionaries began similar selections in 2004.

In 1877, philologist Henry Sweet predicted that within a century British English and American English would become mutually unintelligible. Clearly this has not occurred; however we do see great divergence in the words Oxford has chosen to honour. For example, the only word with a technological bent was selfie, the 2013 selection. The socio-political words chosen were also very different from those picked by the ADS.

In fact, only two of the four would be known by many North Americans; the 2007 choice
carbon footprint and the one in 2008 credit crunch. The other two merit explanation for denizens of Canada and the USA.

The 2010 choice squeezed middle refers to the situation where wage increases for the middle class fail to keep pace with inflation. The 2011 selection big society refers to a political ideology whereby a significant amount of responsibility for the functioning of society is devolved to local communities and volunteers.

What I found most interesting about the Oxford selections was how many of the winners come from television culture. For example the 2012 winner omnishambles was a neologism that came out of the BBC political satire show The Thick of It; it referred to a situation shambolic to the
extreme. The 2006 winner bovvered was a variation of the word “bothered” as uttered by a character in the program Catherine Tate Show.

The character Lauren was prone to ask “Am I bovvered?” when embarrassed. Most curious, however was the 2009 selection simples which arose out of an advertising campaign featuring an animated meerkat. It became a catchphrase uttered when someone wanted to convey that something is easy to achieve.

Oxford’s word of the year for 2016 was post-truth while the ADS opted for dumpster fire that characterized the disastrous, chaotic public
discourse last year.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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