Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2008

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The most looked-up words in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2008 reflect the nation’s preoccupation with discussions surrounding the Presidential campaign.

Seven of the ten–bailout, vet, socialism, maverick, rogue, misogyny, and bipartisan–have political associations.

The other three--turmoil, trepidation, and precipice–have appreared frequently this year in discussions of the stock market and the economy.

Some of these words have more colorful backgrounds than others.

bailout [bāl’out’] – When I hear “bailout” I have the mental image of corporation executives in 3-piece suits sitting in a leaking boat, tossing bucketfuls of water overboad as fast as they can, and scanning the horizon for a ship that will rescue them. The verb to bail, with the sense “toss water out of a boat” comes from a word for “bucket.”

vet [vĕt] – This verb, with the meaning “to examine carefully before approving,” may derive from the examination of a racehorse by a veterinarian before a race. Kipling used it in this sense in 1904. Its meaning expanded to mean the careful “vetting” of anything requiring approval, from a manuscript to a job applicant. The word was apparently unfamiliar to a lot of Americans until Obama used it. I heard it used frequently when I lived in England.

socialism [sō’shə-lĭz’əm] – Not at all an unfamiliar word to Americans, the spike in looking it up may have had something to do with the contradictory ways in which the word was being used. While the “socialism” label was being waved about as a Bad Thing by campaigners, the federal government was practicing what seemed to be a form of socialism by taking over ownership of Wall Street’s mortgage-backed assets.

rogue [rōg] – When Sarah Palin supposedly contradicted something McCain had said, TV commentators kept saying she’d “gone rogue.” Their meaning seemed to be that she’d become uncontrollable, rather like a “rogue elephant” trampling its keepers. Here are some definitions of rogue from Merriam-Webster:

• resembling or suggesting a rogue elephant, especially in being isolated, aberrant, dangerous, or uncontrollable
• corrupt, dishonest
• of or being a nation whose leaders defy international law or norms of international behavior
• a dishonest or worthless person; scoundrel
• a mischievous person : scamp
• a horse inclined to shirk or misbehave
• an individual exhibiting a chance and usually inferior biological variation

misogyny [mĭ-sŏj’ə-nē] – “hatred of women.” The question of misogyny comes up whenever a woman runs for office. This year’s campaign with two high profile women explains interest in this word.

maverick [măv’ər-ĭk or măv’rĭk]- John McCain frequently described himself as a “maverick.” When Sarah Palin joined his campaign, she too adopted the epithet. They used it in the sense of “person who is not controlled by others.” Maverick is an eponynm. Samuel Maverick (1803-1870) was a lawyer, politician, and land baron who refused to brand his cattle. He claimed he didn’t want to hurt them, but other ranchers believed he didn’t brand them so that he could then claim any unbranded calf as his own. “Maverick” first meant “an unbranded calf,” but came to have the figurative sense of “masterless.”

bipartisan [(bī-pär’tĭ-zən, -sən] – Here’s a word that sounds pretty good at the end of a two year campaign filled with inter- and intra-party bickering: “of, relating to, or involving members of two parties; specifically, marked by or involving cooperation, agreement, and compromise between two major political parties.” I can vote for that!

The remaining three words in the Top Ten are all fraught with scary connotations.

trepidation [trĕp’ĭ-dā’shən] – from a Latin word meaning “to tremble,” trepidation is a synonym for “fear.” People who regard a situation “with trepidation” may be shaking in their boots. Ex. China’s Widening Footprint Prompts Trepidation.

precipice [prĕs’ə-pĭs] – from a Latin word meaning “headlong,” a precipice is a steep eminence from which it would be very scary to fall, as in We’re hurtling over the economic precipice.

turmoil [tûr’moil’] – “a state or condition of extreme confusion, agitation, or commotion,” as in World Economic Turmoil.

Maybe next year we’ll be looking up happier words.

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4 thoughts on “Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Year 2008”

  1. Sure wish “enormity” was on there. *grumble mutter*

    But you know what? I’m beating a dead horse. In fact, “big” is an accepted definition of enormity in most dictionaries (though not usage or style guides) so my argument to the general public is moot.

    I guess I’m just an old fogey. Now get off my lawn!

  2. I write and use the word “vet” and sometimes
    wonder if readers know it. I lived in the UK too
    but I don’t think I picked it up there. Just a good
    word to tell about sorting.

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