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?”):
American Dialect Society
2004: red state/blue state
2002: weapons of mass destruction
2001: 9-11 (most often styled 9/11)
Global Language Monitor
2001: ground zero
2011: squeezed middle
2010: big society
2008: credit crunch
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?