The Word of the Year for 2012

By Mark Nichol

Each year, the major dictionary companies trot out their choice for Word of the Year and its runner-ups, based partly on search frequency and partly on staff consensus. Note that these words are selected not for their staying power — Words of the Year often fade into obscurity — but for the significance of their usage in a given year.

Merriam-Webster’s 2012 Word of the Year is a toss-up between capitalism and socialism, reflecting the controversy and debates about universal health care and discussion about the comparative government systems in the United States and in much of Europe.

These words are straightforward — except that they’re not: Capitalism is fraught with negative connotations (and not just by those who oppose the system), and many Americans, as an unfortunately lingering artifact of the Red Menace of the mid-twentieth century, confuse socialism (the concept, not the word) with communism and fear both even though the US government system, like many European ones, is irrevocably infused with socialistic components.

Dictionary.com’s choice is bluster, which means “loud, swaggering, often empty boasts, threats, or other comments” — an appropriate term, considering the unusually contentious political climate in the United States over the last year. The American arm of the Oxford Dictionaries chose GIF (pronounced “jif” and standing for “graphics interchange format”), thanks to the ubiquity of GIFs, simple animations consisting of a looped series of images, employed to humorous effect but also in scientific models and other contexts. They’re not new, but their place in popular culture has recently been elevated by the ease with which they are created.

The selection by editors at Oxford University Press’s UK headquarters is omnishambles, which denotes a thoroughly mismanaged situation notable for a chain of errors. The sense is similar to the American English acronyms fubar and snafu, which originated among service personnel inspired with an ironic nod toward the military’s propensity for describing bureaucratic phenomena with abbreviations. (For the record, fubar stands for “fouled up beyond all recognition,” and snafu is an acronym for “situation normal — all fouled up” — except that I’ve substituted fouled for another word starting with f, as do many others who cater to their own or others’ delicate sensibilities when they spell these terms out.)

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14 Responses to “The Word of the Year for 2012”

  • opsimath

    Thank you for your fascinating contributions over the course of 2012 – they have brought me a lot of information, erudite comment and amusement – I hope that will continue over the next twelve months, D.V.

    I have long been amused by SNAFU and its siblings; my favourites include FUBB (fouled up beyond belief) FUMTU (fouled up more than usual) and my all-time favourite, TUIFU (the ultimate in foul-ups).

    Again, my thanks and my good wishes for a healthy and prosperous new year.

    opsimath

  • Warsaw Will

    The definition of socialism put forward by some on the Right in the States, and the idea that Europe is somehow socialist, rather amuses us over here in Europe. One commentator, for example, said that Obama wanted to make the US a socialist country, like Sweden. IKEA socialist? What they call socialism in its most extreme form, we would probably call the welfare state.

    Oxford Dictionaries Online define socialism as – “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” and Merriam-Webster’s isn’t much different.

    By the dictionary definition at least, there are no socialist countries in the EU. Some, like the Scandinavian countries, are social-democrat yes, some of us still have elements of the welfare state yes, but socialist no – at least not the way we understand it. Yes, we have elements of the welfare state.

    Whatever its merits, a little state-provided healthcare hardly constitutes state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, does it?

  • Bill

    If the “g” in “graphics” is hard, wouldn’t the “g” in “gif” be hard too? I never understand that kind of thing.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Some people disagree with me simply because one letter is omitted (on purpose) – or else out of sheer stubbornness – but I have read that
    FUBU = “Fouled Up Beyond all Understanding”, and I agree.

    I think that those people do not grasp that went creating acronyms and abbreviations, we are free to either omit a word or to take multiple letters from the same word, at will, to make it work out.

    For example: NORAD = NORth American Air Defense Command, where we have omitted the word “command” altogether.
    CINCPAC = Commander-In-Chief, Pacific Fleet, with a similar omission.

    In 1942, CINCUS = Commander-In-Chief, United States Fleet, until the real Admiral Ernest King with that position observed that everyone was pronouncing this one “sink us”, so he vetoed this acronym.

    For a while following the year 2000, there was a brand of clothing for children and teenagers in North America** named FUBU. However, parents who bought this clothing were telling their children that they were “Fouled Up Beyond all Understanding”, which was a nasty thing to say about them. I don’t think that the FUBU brand exists anymore.

    **No kidding: North America includes Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Bahamas, and nearly anything that you can buy in the U.S.A. or Canada, you can buy in all four. “North America” is not a euphemism for “the United States”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    @Bill. In English, the letter “g” usually has the sound of “j” when it is followed by the vowels {e, i, or y }. Notice these words:
    { gel, gem, genie, genius, giant, gigantic, gigawatt, gin, gist, gymnasium, gymnastics, gypsum, gypsy, gyroscope }. The rule for {e, i, or y } used to be taught in elemetary school. Could it be that it isn’t anymore because it has so many exceptions?

    I have also heard of the word “gynnie”, pronounced “Jenny”, but maybe this one was just a humorous one.
    Also, how about “Geddy”? How would you say that one?
    I would say that it is just as in “Jedi Knight”. George Lucas made an arbitrary choice as to how to spell it.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Also spelled with a “g” but pronounced as “f”: “giraffe”, “gee”, and “geography”. These follow the rule for {e, i, or y }.

    Furthermore: { geoid, geosphere, and geophysics }.

    I am an electrical engineer, and I say “gigavolt” as “jigavolt”, too.

  • Dale A. Wood

    “U.S.” Always abbreviated with two periods by well-educated people.

    Furthermore, in the United States, all abbreviations are followed by periods, except by lazy folks. Observe:
    B.S., Dr., D.M.D., D.Sci., E.E., e.g., Fr. (father), ft., gal., h.p., i.e., Inc., M.D., mi., Mr., Mrs., Ms., M.S., Ph.D., qt., Sc.D., yd., etc.

    Notice that the abbreviation for “et cetera” is followed by a period, ad in German, the abbreviation for the same meaning is u.s.w. = “und so weiter”. Another one in German is z.B. which means “zum Beispeil” = “for example”.

    In Spanish, there are “Dr.”, who is a male doctor, and “Dra.”, who is a doctor who happens to be female. “Sr.” = senor, and “Sra.” = senora.

    There is little reason for the people in the British Isles to disagree with Americans, Canadians, Germans, Austrians, Swiss Germans, and people who write Spanish wherever.

    I will leave it up to you to find out what the Brazilians, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Russians, and Turks do.

  • Mark Nichol

    Opsimath:

    Thanks for your comments, and have a happy new year!

  • Sally

    “Dale A. Wood on December 27, 2012 6:11 pm

    “U.S.” Always abbreviated with two periods by well-educated people. ”

    Only IN the US!

  • Jem Hopkins

    I look forward to your daily ‘tips’ and always learn something. I also benefit from the quality of your own use of English. Is it me, or does the following sentence fall below your usual high standards?

    The American arm of the Oxford Dictionaries chose GIF (pronounced “jif” and standing for “graphics interchange format”), thanks to the ubiquity of GIFs, simple animations consisting of a looped series of images, employed to humorous effect but also in scientific models and other contexts.

  • Treathyl FOX

    There was once a time when I had a house full of little people. Most of my children are grown now, except one of them. Were I to choose a word that represented the Word of the Year for any year when they were living at home, it would be “AS IS”. Which stands for: “accidentally or suddenly, I screwed up!” The “U” intentionally being omitted so that it doesn’t point back to the gulity party. 🙂

    I very much enjoy DWT posts. Loking forward to 2013.

  • venqax

    Actually, there is no authority for requiring periods between the letters in US. In the US or otherwise. It is a style issue, and the version with periods will even be red-lined or zapped by some American spellcheckers. The periods for most abbreviations are required by SAE, but they really are vestigal and a PITA. Witness Mr, Mrs, Dr, does anyone not realize these are abbreviations and try to pronounce them as vowel-less words, somehow? In the case of all-caps abbreviations, periods have been specifically abolished by some orgs. E.g. the US military’s ranks; PVT, PFC, CPL, SSG, 2LT, MAJ, LTC, GEN, no periods. PO2C, CPO, CMDR, RADM, again, no periods.

  • venqax

    In English, the letter “g” usually has the sound of “j” when it is followed by the vowels {e, i, or y }. Notice these words:
    { gel, gem, genie, genius, giant, gigantic, gigawatt, gin, gist, gymnasium, gymnastics, gypsum, gypsy, gyroscope }. The rule for {e, i, or y } used to be taught in elemetary school. Could it be that it isn’t anymore because it has so many exceptions?

    It is still a good rule to know, and the exceptions are pretty easily IDed, really. First, mostly proper nouns/names, which often don’t conform to rules in general: Gilbert, Gibson, Gilligan, Gifford, Geffen, Gerber, Geddy. Often names are exceptions because they simply are not English, so can’t be expected to follow English rules no matter how relevant.

    Second, very old words in the language of Germanic Anglo-Saxon or Norse derivation: girl, gift, gill (of a fish).

    The rule is helpful more often than not.

  • Anonymous

    Cleg Burris here. This topic is very interesting. I’m a prolific writer who uses may words each day as part of my craft. You could say I’m a guru of wordsmithing and my knowledge of word placement is legendary.

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