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.)