The Contractually Obligated Post of the Year

The beginning of January is one long, exhausted sigh around here.  We’ve endured months of anticipation accompanied by fervent requests and hints; the news outlets just won’t shut up about the season; and it all culminates in one frenzied evening of eating, yelling, and flying paper. In the morning, you feel bloated and vaguely hungover. Looking at the detritus of the night before, you are filled with self-loathing and weltschmerz. You vow not to do this again next year, but even as the thought finishes sludging its way through your aching head (which you are slowly and deeply rubbing, as if physically reconfiguring your gray matter is the only thing that can help you now), you hear the lie of it. This happens every year.  You let this happen every year. You’d cry if you had any dignity left. As it is, all you can do is moan:

“Goddamned Word of the Year.”

As you well know, lots of dictionary companies and other assorted language outfits release a Word of the Year. The American Dialect Society (the only group that sensibly chooses their Word of the Year after the year is actually done) met last week, cast votes, and chose the zeitgeisty “occupy” as their Word of the Year. M-W sifted through the look-up logs and chose “pragmatic.” Oxford chose “squeezed middle,” which is a PHRASE, OMG you guys, and lo, there were complaints on the Internet that a two-word phrase cannot be the Word of the Year. Dictionary.com chose “tergiversate” because it’s an awesome word and why the hell not?

But let’s not recap all the Words of the Year. The press has done a good job of incessantly covering them for the last two months. Truth be told, I’ve got a raging signifier hangover.

It’s not that I think that the Words of the Year aren’t interesting, or that annually highlighting a word that has seen tremendous use or linguistic change isn’t a good idea. It’s that sociological mountains are made of linguistic molehills.

Merriam-Webster generally chooses its Words of the Year by going over the look-up logs and seeing which word had the biggest or most sustained spike in look-ups that year. This is interesting because it tells you what words people associate with certain events. Past years’ words have been “austerity,” “bailout,” and “integrity,” and there have always been opinion pieces that follow the Word of the Year announcement and make grand, sweeping generalizations about the State of This World based on our look-up logs.

In 2007, we decided to mix it up. We put together a list of the most commonly looked-up words and the most popular words submitted to our New Words & Slang forum, and let the website users vote on them. What a stroke of genius–instead of relying on look-ups, which really only track words that people don’t know or aren’t sure of, we could have The Public vote on what the most important word of the year was! What could be more democratic?

Behold democracy in action: the Word of the Year in 2007 was “w00t”–yes, with zeroes. As words go, I think “w00t” (or “woot,” if you are allergic to mixing letters and numbers) is great fun. It’s a harmless word, very creative, and someone clearly had fun organizing a voting campaign for it.

The response to this announcement was amazing. Because “w00t” was suddenly hailed Word of the Year, people felt like it had to have some sort of significance in our modern culture. And so the reaching began. I read article after article about how, with this choice, Merriam-Webster was finally giving legitimacy to the gamer/hacker community; how the choice of this word is representative of a carefree national mood; how it shouldn’t be eligible for Word of the Year because it’s not even a word–words are made up of letters and there are frickin’ ZEROES all up in “w00t”; how this is stupid because “w00t” is soooo 1997, not 2007; how this is further evidence that no one cares about language anymore. There was even a lighthearted backlash campaign which generated about 1,000 e-mails, all of which landed in my inbox, and all of which I personally and cheerfully answered. (I also cheerfully and personally answered the hundreds of not-so-lighthearted e-mails about how we were sending the English language to hell in a l33t-lined handbasket.  Are you still sure you want this job?)

Language is a form of communication and is therefore public, but our interactions with and responses to it are intensely personal. There are, according to the Ethnologue, currently over 328,000,000 English speakers in the world spread out over about 115 countries. No one word will sum up the year for all of them, or for even a fraction of them–nor should it. The vibrancy of English as a living, growing language is due in no small part to the diversity of its speakers. “Occupy” has a very different connotation and tone for someone who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto than it does for me, and if they are unhappy about its sudden ascendance as Signifier of the Zeitgeist, well, I can’t blame them. The personal nuancing of Words of the Year happens even without Nazi war atrocities. In my household, “pragmatic” is not a positive word; it is secret code for “penny-pinching killjoy.” “Squeezed middle” refers alternately to the toothpaste tube after the kids have been at it or me in jeans. My own Word of the Year is not printable in polite company. Or even among you, dear readers.

Linguists and lexicographers may track language and choose a word that has had extensive use in the last year, but those choices are just the opinions and reports of a small subset of very nerdy people (represent!). There’s no reason to blow them out of proportion.

But since the press has to have something to write about, I hope that you will all enjoy the opinion pieces that appear this time next year after I successfully spam the look-up engine and make “amazeballs” the 2012 Word of the Year. (Sorry, ADS.)

15 Comments

Filed under general, of the year

15 responses to “The Contractually Obligated Post of the Year

  1. I frankly don’t understand the whole “word of the year” thing; now I know how my grandparents must have felt when they read about “be-ins” back in the ’60s. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled…

    • korystamper

      I understand completely. I’m not one for any “[Specified Thing] of the Year,” unless that specified thing is “Winning Lottery Tickets Presented to Kory Stamper.”

  2. Corners.

    And what is more, I know the tune for that couplet (rather bluesy, actually).

    Nyah nyah.

    • korystamper

      Okay, John, ‘fess up: what’s the tune?

      • In 4/4 time:

        I grow old, I grow old
        C1 C1 G (rest), | Ab Ab C (rest)
        I shall wear the corners of my trousers rolled
        C-D Eb – C Gb – F Eb-C G-F Eb C (rest)

        (I hope that’s readable.)

        where C1 = high C. Note that “trou” is stretched to two notes, the first of which is G natural.

  3. “Sustained spike” (graf 6) seems somehow an oxymoron, but a suitable alternative doesn’t present itself. “Longest plateau” or “highest plateau” both sound forced and unclear. Maybe “biggest butte” is the right double-entendrefied metaphor?

    Today’s post, as usual, was amazeballs. Thank you.

  4. “. . . currently over 328,000,000 English speakers in the world spread out over about 115 countries . . .” Did you perhaps leave out a zero there? I think there are almost that many English speakers in the US alone. :)

    • korystamper

      I just popped over to the Ethnologue to check: they are basing their numbers on the 2000 census. So the number is definitely higher–but how much higher, I’m not going to tell you. (Because I don’t know.)

  5. Marc Leavitt

    What we need now is a prognosticators’ contest to guess how many WOTY winners will be used in 10 years.

  6. This was my first viewing of the word ‘w00t’.

  7. Garrett Wollman

    For as long as people have been sufficiently aware of language change to write about it, people have drawn entirely spurious moral conclusions from it. It seems to be one of those universal human cognitive failings, right up there with the $x.99 illusion.

  8. I feel humbled. My wife confidently defined and pronounced tergiversate as if she had been thinking it every time I’ve addressed her over the last 30 years. I don’t think I want to know what that says about me, or my mastery of the language. Thanks for the words of the year. I only take comfort in the fact that your spell checker is as ignorant as I was, at least, as to it’s spelling.

  9. Charming Charlie

    Amazeballs is a little sexist. Are we to believe the female anatomy is somehow less equipped for surprise and awe? I propose the gender neutral Amazegonads.

    Unless of course, the etymology of Amazeballs does not grow from the figurative use of balls for testes, but frankly if that was true it’d be totally amazegonads.

  10. Lauren Marlowe

    You had me at amazeballs. Consider me a co-conspirator in occupy-the-look-up-engine2012.

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