The Word of the Year 2011

By Mark Nichol

Each year at about this time, the English-language media rolls out various reports announcing the word of the year according to one or more authorities. These pieces imply or overtly suggest that these selections are keywords for our society’s values, beliefs, and obsessions.

But a glance at such choices reveals that these words are the linguistic equivalent of candy — satisfying (or not — sometimes they’re the equivalent of chocolate-covered brussels sprouts) but not sustaining. The following lists of the top word for each year of the past decade suggest that one year’s byword can be the next year’s punch line (or a least a later period’s “Huh?”):

Merriam-Webster
2010: austerity
2009: admonish
2008: bailout
2007: w00t
2006: truthiness
2005: integrity
2004: blog
2003: democracy

American Dialect Society
2010: app
2009: tweet
2008: bailout
2007: subprime
2006: plutoed
2005: truthiness
2004: red state/blue state
2003: metrosexual
2002: weapons of mass destruction
2001: 9-11 (most often styled 9/11)

Global Language Monitor
2011: occupy
2010: spillcam
2009: Twitter
2008: change
2007: hybrid
2006: sustainable
2005: refugee
2004: incivility
2003: embedded
2002: misunderestimate
2001: ground zero

Oxford Dictionaries
2011: squeezed middle
2010: big society
2009: unfriend
2008: credit crunch
2007: footprint
2006: bovvered
2005: podcast
2004: chav

Technological terms like app and tweet have variable staying power. Blog, which was ten years old when Merriam-Webster crowned it in 2004 (while app may be old enough to vote), isn’t going anywhere, nor is podcast. But eventually, many once popular terms evoke nothing more than a chuckle (“floppy disk,” anyone?). And to w00t, I say, “W00t-ever.”

Jargon from economic and political contexts serves as a shorthand, but Steven Colbert’s brilliant-in-its-time truthiness is as stale as Bush-speak jokes (or perhaps I misunderestimate it), and “weapons of mass destruction” and embedded have acquired a derisive connotation their coiners did not intend.

Variance in American English and British English is also an obstacle: Several of the Oxford Dictionaries selections are obscure to US readers. (“Big society” refers to localism in government, bovvered is part of a British TV character’s dismissive catchphrase “Am I bovvered?” and chav refers to a lumpen-prole UK subculture with a perplexing penchant for faux-Burberry plaid couture.)

Environmentally oriented terms — at least the ones in these lists — seem to have legs: We’re still discussing sustainability and footprints (as in “carbon footprint”), though perhaps without the fresh vigor applied just a few years before.

A couple of these lists offer a word of the year for 2011 (the other listmakers have not yet weighed in for the current year), but you are also entitled to your opinion. Which word (or phrase) do you nominate for the honor?

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3 Responses to “The Word of the Year 2011”

  • Cathy

    Great article! I am impressed by your understanding of the British vernacular. (When I read that paragraph, I’m like, “Say what?”!) I am surprised that two words did not make anyone’s list: surreal and compelling.

  • thebluebird11

    I try not to allow linguistic fads to penetrate my consciousness, lest they get a foothold. Unless perhaps I’m joking, you will never hear me speak about cat’s pajamas; nothing will be nifty, groovy, right on or kewl; there is no shizzle, fer rillz, anywhere around here; and as far as I can tell from recent flights, all states look sorta green.
    Some other words (like incivility, embedded, hybrid, etc) are perfectly serviceable. I need to use “apps,” and need to use that word so that other people know what I’m talking about. I will forever live without metrosexuals (the people AND the concept); the word alone makes my skin crawl.
    Until now, I had never heard the word “plutoed,” but I imagine it has to do with something previously thought of as inviolable suddenly being unceremoniously removed from its post with the thumb and forefinger, as if it stank, dumped in the trash, and then replaced with some dubious substitute. I like the word. I miss Pluto and I think what they did to it was unconscionable.
    And now, back to my cave 😉 Happy holidays to all!

  • Mark MacKay

    “Woot” is a celebratory declamation. It’s commonly used by a group of friends and revelers I join for weekly parties. It’s most commonly used when a friend we especially like or miss shows up. Beer is involved.

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