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Preoccupied by words of the year

As the year ends, lexicographers and other word geeks traditionally put their heads together to choose or vote for a word of the year (WOTY). It’s not that simple, of course: different groups pick different words in different ways for different reasons. And it’s not always a word – other “vocabulary items” like phrases and parts of words are generally allowed.

Words of the Year can be new or newly prominent or significant. They’re like annual trending topics, pointing to wider concerns in society, and it can be fun to follow the suggestions and the debates over which ones deserve recognition and why. A handy way to do this is through the #woty or #woty11 hashtags on Twitter.

Some have already been named: polls at TIME and elected occupy and tergiversate, respectively, while Merriam-Webster went with pragmatic and Oxford Dictionaries chose squeezed middle. Occupy is also a strong candidate for the American Dialect Society’s WOTY, which in recent years has come from the areas of technology (tweet, app) and economics (subprime, bailout).

The Society’s event includes categories such as most useful, creative, unnecessary, outrageous, and euphemistic. You can see why it appeals to people who don’t just use words but track them, study them, and adore them.

I like Arab Spring and humblebrag, but occupy occupies my top spot this year. Initially a rallying cry for protestors in Wall Street, it spread rapidly to become a worldwide movement in which the word itself “shaped the perception of important events”, as Geoff Nunberg wrote at NPR. A clear sign of its cultural penetration and versatility is the appearance of so many parodies, like Occupy Sesame Street.

Occupy retains its principal transitive senses of “use a place” and “take or have control of a place”, which is essentially what activists have done with public space to voice their displeasure over economic inequality and related issues. But the word has developed an unexpected intransitive use: now you can just occupy, meaning participate in an Occupy protest.

In her BuzzWord article in October, Kerry Maxwell revealed that occupy’s former use “as a euphemism for ‘have sexual relations with’ [caused] it to fall out of general usage until the late 18th century”. Ben Zimmer, in “Occupying Word Street”, writes that the protest-related sense appeared in 1920, and through this route occupy has gained a new lease of life.

A subsequent article by Mr Zimmer discusses some of this year’s other main contenders, including nymwars and winning. All are linguistically interesting; but for me, occupy occupies.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Stan:
    Best wishes for the new year. Ratiocinating without undue tergiversation, I contemplate the corruscation of neologisms with trepidation as I oscillate between their acceptance and rejection, but I won’t vacillate in notating annotations in my latinate dissertations on their duration.

  • Many happy returns, Marc. Something tells me you didn’t vote for tergiversate! I’m all for encouraging people to learn new words, but for a WOTY it seems perversely obscure. As for neologisms: I think oscillation is a wise approach to take at first. Most of them take a bit of living with before we can assess their utility. Some grow on us; others fade faster than we can keep up with.

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