Occupy, App, Tweet, Bailout, Subprime – What’s in a Word?

As the basic building block of messages – words are powerful. Even so, can one word sum up an entire year? How about a decade? A century? Or even a millennium?

Impossible, you say?

Well, the American Dialect Society (ADS) may take issue with you on that.

Since 1990, the ADS – which was established in 1889 and is dedicated to the study of the English language in North America – chooses one word that best describes the past year.

On its web site, the organization explains it like this: “What expression most reflects the ideas, events, and themes which have occupied the English-speaking world, especially North America?”

This is a light-hearted exercise, say those who participate in it, such as Grant Barrett, who is the chair emeritus of the “New Words Committee” of the ADS and is our interviewee for this blog post.

But words do indeed have an impact. And it’s important to realize that when it comes to messaging and communication.

For instance, members of the ADS voted “occupy” as the Year of the Word in 2011. Just by reading that word, it’s a safe bet that images of protests along with everything from banks to your own bank account came to mind. The occupy movement went global with vocal rallies and garnered much media attention.

Occupy Wall Street Protest
(Credit: Flickr user bogieharmond)

“It’s a very old word, but over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement,” said Ben Zimmer, who was chair of this year’s “New Words Committee.”  “The movement itself was powered by the word.”

OK, you say. So maybe you can actually come up with a word for a year.

But try coming up with one for the millennium? What’s “the” word for year 2000?

The ADS had a runoff vote to decide between the words “science” and “she.” She won. The explanation:

“Yes, she, the feminine pronoun. Before the year 1000, there was no she in English; just heo, which singular females had to share with plurals of all genders because it meant they as well. In the twelfth century, however, she appeared, and she has been with us ever since. She may derive from the Old English feminine demonstrative pronoun seo or sio, or from Viking invasions.”

What kind of a world would we have without she or science? No world at all, actually. We’re glad for the runoff and we’re glad for a win for “she.” And, that earlier question, could you come up with the word of the century as well? For the last century, it was “jazz.” And, yes, we’d agree with that one too. That one small word gives a great metaphor for the rhythm of America’s progress and struggles on all fronts in the 20th century.

So we now turn our post over to our guest interviewee, Mr. Barrett.

A lexicographer specializing in slang and new words, and who co-hosts the public radio program “A Way with Words,” which is heard by a quarter-million people each week.

We welcome his thoughts:

– – –

What is the significance of the Words of the Year?
It’s a whimsical event that highlights that language changes are interesting and constant. Nothing more. It’s not a serious affair.

How are they chosen?
We take nominations during a nominating event, there is discussion, and then the next day we vote and take further nominations. It’s usually fractious and fun. The criteria:

The best “word of the year” candidates will be:
— demonstrably new or newly popular in 2011
— widely and/or prominently used in 2011
— indicative or reflective of the popular discourse
— not a peeve or a complaint about overuse or misuse

Multi-word compounds or phrases that act as stand-alone lexical items are also welcomed.

Sub-categories for “word of the year” include most useful, most creative, most unnecessary, most outrageous, most euphemistic, most likely to succeed, and least likely to succeed.

Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as “vocabulary item” — not just words but also phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year, in the manner of Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

2011 Person of the Year – The Protester
(Credit: Time Magazine)

Is there normally a lot of debate over which word will be “the” word of the year?
Always! Either beforehand or at the event itself.

As you mentioned, the American Dialect Society also chooses other words, such as “Most Creative,” “Most Useful,” “Most outrageous,” etc. How are these words chosen?
Same way: folks nominate, there’s discussion, then a vote.

Do you have a favorite word, regardless of whether it ever reached the recognition of Word of the Year?
They are all my children!

Over the history that the ADS has covered, is there a favorite Word of the Year that you have?
No favorites. In the beginning they were pretty lame (like “bushlips” in 1990) but we’re doing much better since then:


How can a single word hold such power and influence?
I don’t buy into that premise.

How do new words come about? Where do new words come from?
That’s an encyclopedia entry you’re asking for. In short, all humans make new words all the time following the morphological rules of their particular languages. Almost all of those new words are quickly forgotten. A few, those that are easy to say, spell, remember, and which have a useful meaning and *aren’t* overly cleverly or funny, survive.

Are “new words” really new or are they an existing word that has a new meaning?
See the criteria above. The words of the year do not have to be new.

Your expertise is in slang? What motivated you to study that language?
I wanted to be a better writer so I thought hanging out with linguists and lexicographers was a good idea. It turned out to be interesting, though the best way to become a better writer is still a) to read the work of good writers and b) do lots of writing.

How often do slang words become mainstream words? And how does that happen?
There’s no way to count this and we’d have to define terms. What is “slang”? What is “mainstream”?

In a nutshell, slang — nonstandard words of a lower or less prestigious register — takes ages to lose its connotation as something other than Standard English. Look at words like “cool, good, great, okay, easy, etc.,” which are still considered slang by most speakers many decades after it first became common.

– – –

We’d like to thank Mr. Barrett for his participation and insights. And even though it’s only May, it’s never too early to start thinking of what the word of 2012 will be.

Indeed, nominations for Words of the Year can be submitted all year long to woty@americandialect.org

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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