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The year in words

We’re delighted to welcome Orin Hargraves to the Macmillan Dictionary Blog team as a regular contributor in 2012. Orin is not new to the Macmillan English Dictionary, having worked on the American English edition. Orin is an independent lexicographer, based in Maryland, USA, and author of books about English, including Slang Rules!, a lesson book for English learners about American slang.


It’s the time of year when the adjective seasonal takes on a particular meaning. Initialisms can be seasonal too, and one initialism that rises from its habitual dormancy only in the last weeks of one calendar year and the first weeks of the next is WOTY: shorthand for Word of the Year. Media pundits and others like to summarize events of a closing year with all kinds of lists and recognitions; folks who take an interest in words – perhaps merely motivated by FOMO (see below) – make a point of honoring words that have burst on the scene, or made a startling career move, during the 12 months just passed. Thus is the WOTY born and glorified.

If you survey the various newspapers, blogs, media organizations and others that have come up with a contest, list, or suggestion to determine this year’s WOTY, you’ll notice a trend very early on: the hands-down frontrunner for the title is occupy, which many organizations have already declared to be this year’s WOTY. While the American Dialect Society has not yet weighed in (their pronouncement will be made before the end of the first week in January), it would be quite surprising if the winner in their overall category is not this hardworking verb that started its career in English in the 14th century. The work that occupy has done this year, taken together with its former shape-shifting, surely qualifies it for a lifetime achievement award. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which quickly spread around the US and the world (and which was partly inspired by the Arab Spring) has meant that hardly any English speaker is not aware the word in its current, slightly evolved meaning: to take possession of a public place as a form of civil protest.

Merriam-Webster, publisher of the best-selling US dictionary, has taken a different tack entirely for the 2011 WOTY. It chose the adjective pragmatic in a move that left many WOTY fans scratching their heads. There is an explanation. Pragmatic, it turns out, was the most looked-up word in 2011 in Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries online. The word arose frequently in political rhetoric twice during the year: in the run-up to the US debt-ceiling negotiations in the summer, and again during deficit negotiations this fall. Merriam-Webster gets high marks for scientific method, but their choice seems to have been a public relations fail: it’s widely held that the WOTY must somehow capture the zeitgeist, and pragmatic’s spikes during the year clearly failed to do that.

Speaking of the zeitgeist, Google Zeitgeist listed the 10 most frequent searches of 2011; and while these do not exactly constitute WOTYs, they capture a corner of the popular imagination that has some linguistic interest. All of the most popular searches are proper nouns and that fact itself perhaps says something about the celebrity-obsessed, materialistic world we live in. But one term on the Google list was the name of a company: TEPCO, the Japanese power company that operated the Fukushima power plant.

Several websites take a populist approach to determine their WOTY, inviting site visitors to nominate words themselves, or choose from a shortlist. Amalgamating a few of these, we’ve constructed this list of top contenders, roughly in descending order:

  1. occupy
  2. Arab Spring
  3. planking (check it out on YouTube if you have time to kill)
  4. winning (what actor Charlie Sheen would have you believe he’s good at)
  5. 99% (the socioeconomic cohort that occupiers, and probably you, occupy)
  6. tiger mother (based on Amy Chua’s best-selling memoir about extreme Chinese parenting)
  7. FOMO (fear of missing out; thought to be a motivation for obsessive checking of and participation in social media websites)
  8. humblebrag (false humility of celebrities who tweet their faux-hardships)
  9. bunga bunga (Google it if you don’t keep up with Silvio Berlusconi)

A few websites feature WOTY nominees that have a distinctly local flavor. Appearing on one list from an Australian news site is gestational carrier along with this explanation:

When [Australian actress] Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban announced the birth of their second daughter, Faith, by thanking their “gestational carrier”, they gave the English language its best anatomical euphemism since “wardrobe malfunction”.

The blog of the San Francisco Chronicle has been running a WOTY contest for a decade. One of its nominees this year is pepper spray, in reference to the notorious incident in nearby Oakland, California, where police pepper-sprayed at close range the faces of sitting, peaceful protesters.

This year’s most adventitious WOTY is tergiversate. This one left WOTY-watchers wondering what went on. It was chosen by whose editors offered a not very winning explanation for the choice, though anyone reading about it might navigate to the site and look up the word there, perhaps staying long enough to click on some ads. We expect that the choice was the result of rather lengthy, but perhaps inadequate, tergiversation.

More on WOTY …

For more on this topic, see:
Our BuzzWord article: New words in 2011
Stan Carey’s post on: Preoccupied by words of the year
Contributors’ choice: Your words of 2011

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Orin Hargraves


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