Thursday, January 12, 2012

words of the year-2011

A slightly shorter version of this article appeared today in the Toronto Star.

And the world of the year for 2011 is...


Howard Richler

Since 1990, the American Dialect Society has paid homage to the most sublime, lexiest creations of each year - the new words that grace our lexicon annually. These words have been drawn from a number of varied categories. For example, “ethnic cleansing” was the winner in 1992’s “most outrageous category” and “gate rape” (defined as “pejorative term for invasive new airport pat-down procedures”) reigned supreme in the same category in 2010. “Ebonics” was 1996’s “most controversial” word and “waterboarding” won in the “most euphemistic” category in 2006.

Each year a “word of the year” is chosen and, as one would expect, the worlds of politics and technology have provided us with the dominant neologisms. Some of the sociopolitical selections have been somewhat Americentric, and perhaps as a result, have not exhibited staying power. A case in point is the expression “bushlips,” referencing insincere political rhetoric, which was awarded word of the year in 1990. Similarly, “newt” meaning “aggressive political changes by a neophyte” was this category's co-winner in1995. On the other hand, technological words have not been ephemeral as shown by the following still-used list of words of the year: app (2010), tweet, (2009), Y2K (1999), e-, as in e-mail, (1998). Conclusive evidence of this trend arrived in 2010 when “google” was voted the word of the decade.

On Jan 6th 2012 at the American Dialect Society convention in Portland, Oregon, it was decided that the word of the year for 2011 was “occupy.” The choice fell to this particular word because it was felt that it became an emblem for the whole protest movement. Ben Zimmer, the language columnist of the Boston Globe stated that although “occupy” is “a very old word, over the course of just a few months it took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement ... The movement itself was powered by the word.” However, I do not agree that “occupy” is being used in a new distinct sense. Starting in the 14th century it had a sense of taking possession of something by force. By 1920, the verb was used to mean to gain access to a piece of land or building without authority as a form of protest. For example, the London Times on Sept 9, 1920 stated “The men have occupied the works in those cases where the masters have declined the works at a loss. And if I see another dumb joke on Facebook such as “I'm gonna occupy a beer from the fridge now,” I'm going to seriously unfriend some people.

Before dismissing the Society's 2012 choice for word of the year, I would be remiss if I didn't mention one particularly shocking sense of “occupy” that has fallen from our vernacular. From the 15th century to the beginning of the 19th century, the word “occupy” was used as an euphemism for engaging in sex For example, in John Florio's Worlde of Wordes written in 1598, there is reference to “raskalie whores in Italy, who cause them to be occupide one and thirtie times by one and thirtie several base raskalie companions.”

The other nominees for the 2011 word of the year were FOMO (an acronym for Fear of Missing Out), a description of the angst we feel over the deluge of data we receive on social media; “the 99%,” those regarded to be at a political or economic disadvantage with regards to the top wage-earners, the one percenters; “job creator,” a member of the top 1% of moneymakers and “humblebrag,” an expression of false humility, particularly by celebs on Twitter. This last entry was deemed to be the winner in the “most useful” category.

My favourite category this year was the “most creative” section. Here we sampled “bunga bunga” referring to the sex parties associated with former Italain Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi. Its etymology is somewhat murky, however, a German actress claims that “bunga bunga” originated as Berlusconi's nickname for her, and eventually morphed into his term for wild parties with young girls. Another amusing candidate in this category was “Kardash” referring to a unit of measurement of 72 days, a time frame that coincides with the short-term marriage of Kim Kardashian to Kris Humphries. But, the winner in the “most creative” category was “Mellencamp” describing a woman who has aged out of being a cougar. Pop music enthusiasts will discern that the term is named after pop singer John Cougar Mellencamp.

Indeed, eponymous neologisms were popular this year. To “Mubarak” is “to farcically hold on to power,” and if you're “Mubaraked” to your chair it might mean you're stuck in it. Another eponymous term that emerged this year was “Tebowing” lampooning the praying pose of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Given its geopolitical importance, I was disappointed that the term “Arab Spring,” referring to popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes in the Arab world was not one of the nominees for word of the year. Mind you, it was runner-up in the “most likely to succeed” genre. The winner here was the word “cloud” referencing online space for the large-scale processing and storage of data. Another term in this category that I believe will have legs is “tiger mom” referring to an extremely strict parent. This term derives from Amy Chua's memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Lest you feel that Canada was given short shrift because neither the verb “to Harper” (to cut off debate) or “to McKay” (to use a military helicopter instead of a taxi while on vacation) did not register with American Dialect voters, I am proud to say that the whole impetus for the occupy movement had a Canadian genesis. It was on July 13th , 2011, that the Vancouver-based anti-consumer magazine Adbusters suggested online that people “Occupy Wall Street” in lower Manhattan on Sept 17th , and in a heartbeat the movement went viral and, thanks to the Canucks, the American Dialect Society had its word of the year.

Howard's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.

No comments:

Post a Comment