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January 9th, 2008

Words of the year

by Barbara Wallraff

Certain words, like certain people, are publicity hounds, and at this time of year they’re desperate for attention. Four cases in point are “subprime,” “w00t,” “locavore” and “hybrid.” Each of these is the Word of the Year 2007, according to somebody.

The American Dialect Society holds the oldest and most distinguished of the Word of the Year contests during its annual meeting, in early January. The members vote for a word (or phrase) that’s “newly prominent or notable in the past year, in the manner of Time magazine’s Person of the Year.” At their meeting Jan. 4, the winner by a landslide was “subprime,” which the ADS defines as “an adjective used to describe a risky or less than ideal loan, mortgage, or investment.” Runners-up included “green-,” referring to environmental concern; “Facebook” used as various parts of speech; “waterboarding,” a word that, unfortunately, we’ve already heard way too many times; “Googleganger,” defined as “a person with your name who shows up when you google yourself,” derived from “doppelganger,” meaning “a ghostly double of a living person”; and “to have a wide stance,” defined as “to be hypocritical or to express two conflicting points of view” -- a reference to Sen. Larry Craig, and if you don’t get it, I suggest you forget it. It’s crude.

Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, chooses a Word of the Year by a more populist method: letting the users of its Web site vote. So maybe it’s unsurprising that the winning word is a favorite of the online games community -- if no one else. The winner was “w00t,” defined as “expressing joy (it could be after a triumph, or for no reason at all), similar in use to the word ‘yay.’” Never mind that it doesn’t appear in any M-W dictionary except an online “open” one, created by its users, and Merriam-Webster isn’t promising that it ever will. Among the runners-up -- following “facebook” (verb), “conundrum,” “quixotic” and “blamestorm” in popularity -- was “sardoodledom,” defined as “mechanically contrived plot structure and stereotyped or unrealistic characterization in drama: staginess, melodrama,” and derived from the name of a French playwright, Victorien Sardou, who died in 1908. Please don’t ask me to explain. I can’t.

Over at Oxford, or more specifically the New Oxford American Dictionary, the lexicographers pick their own Word of the Year. (No out-of-control “w00t”s and “sardoodledom”s for them!) For 2007 they chose “locavore,” meaning a person who seeks out food made of locally grown ingredients. Runners-up included “aging in place: the process of growing older while living in one’s own residence, instead of having to move to a new home or community,” “cougar: an older woman who romantically pursues younger men” and “upcycling: the transformation of waste materials into something more useful or valuable.”

Last, and least, a pseudoscientific outfit called the Global Language Monitor anointed “hybrid” and named as runners-up “surge,” “bubble,” “smirting” (meaning flirting while standing outside a building to smoke), “Pb” (the chemical symbol for lead), “ideate,” “omega 3,” “cleavage,” “amigoization” and “Bluetooth.” Where do they get this stuff? Here’s the way GLM explains: “The analysis was completed using GLM’s Predictive Quantities Indicator (PQI), the proprietary algorithm that tracks words and phrases in the media and on the Internet.” As I said, where do they get ...?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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