One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
Word of the Year 2010
UK Word of the Year
Let’s hear a woot (or not?) for the Big Society!
Each year, as the announcement of Oxford’s Word of the Year approaches, I’m reminded of some words from the playwright Dennis Potter: ‘the trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in’. I sometimes wonder whether that’s why I like new words so much – mint-new shiny coinages that have no murky past and that crucially, have everything to play for.
But that can’t be the whole story, because, however romantically we like to imagine the making of new words – as a flash of inspiration by one individual in a single moment in time – the prosaic truth is that only 1% of all new words are really, really new. The vast majority is made up of older words which have been resurrected and repurposed.
So, if it’s not for their absolute originality, what is it about new words that fascinates so?
The shortlist for the word of 2010 gives, I think, a pretty good view of the attractions on offer.
Oxford’s 2010 Words of the Year:
- big society
- Tea Party
- top kill
- Los 33
- Boris bike
The real signs of the times
The first and most obvious gift that new words bring is an understanding of the times we’re living in. New words can collectively serve as the pithiest of shorthands for what we are thinking and doing, right at this moment. Oxford’s shortlists for their word of the year in 2008 and 2009 left no doubt as to the impact of the recession on our vocabulary. We struggled to keep up as toxic debt, deleveraging, and quantitative easing muscled their way into currency.
Our final choice for the word of 2010, the coalition’s new dream of the big society, is no less a mirror of the times, in this case of the extraordinary political events of the year. The term’s success within a short period of time has been impressive, underscored by the ease with which it is now played upon: when the new PM visited China, both the Times and the Guardian headlined his challenge as ‘Cameron confronts the biggest society’.
A single word or phrase can often distil history as powerfully as any photograph, and many of the year’s crop of new, or newly resurrected, words and phrases are particularly event-driven. Los 33, a curious mixture of Spanish and English when spoken, was the only reference needed for the lost and saved Chilean miners and the entire spectacular story surrounding them. Earlier in the year top kill, like tsunami a decade before it, exemplified the passing of a hitherto technical term into the mainstream. The procedure, designed to secure a leaking oil well, sadly failed in the case of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Twittering on, and on…
At the start of the twenty-tens, social networking showed no let up in its influence on our lives and hence our language. Among the Twitter offshoots this year were twinterviews, twetiquette, and the shortlisted tweeps, made up of ‘Twitter’ and ‘peeps’. Together with upcycling and clickjacking, tweeps provides a near-perfect example of the most productive process behind language change today, the blend.
Wordplaying for laughs
There is another big attraction which must score well with those casual observers of our language who lap up new words: they are fun. We may not relish all of them, but few of us could claim we weren’t that little bit curious when we heard showmance, vuvuzela (a wonderful example of the ready adoption of a foreign term when it suits), Boris bike, and upcycling. The virtual world’s bespoke cry of triumph, woot (or is it w00t?) can seem nonsensical to those outside the in-group. But then isn’t that the point? English arouses passion in its users like no other language. It has no owners: it belongs as much to those for whom it is a second or third language as to its native users, and it can go wherever it likes. New words are the brazen face that English shows the world, they are its shop window. Some delight; some disgust, but as long as they keep on coming, surely our mercurial language is safe.
US Word of the Year
Followers of Sarah Palin’s Twitter account will undoubtedly recognize the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2010:
Refudiate: A Historical Perspective
An unquestionable buzzword in 2010, the word refudiate instantly evokes the name of Sarah Palin, who tweeted her way into a flurry of media activity when she used the word in certain statements posted on Twitter. Critics pounced on Palin, lampooning what they saw as nonsensical vocabulary and speculating on whether she meant “refute” or “repudiate.”
From a strictly lexical interpretation of the different contexts in which Palin has used “refudiate,” we have concluded that neither “refute” nor “repudiate” seems consistently precise, and that “refudiate” more or less stands on its own, suggesting a general sense of “reject.”
Although Palin is likely to be forever branded with the coinage of “refudiate,” she is by no means the first person to speak or write it—just as Warren G. Harding was not the first to use the word normalcy when he ran his 1920 presidential campaign under the slogan “A return to normalcy.” But Harding was a political celebrity, as Palin is now, and his critics spared no ridicule for his supposedly ignorant mangling of the correct word “normality.”
In addition, forming a word by merging two together (technically called “a blend”) can be useful and has a long established pedigree, as evidenced by words we take for granted in modern usage but which started life as blends: for example, brunch, acupressure, smog, and motel.
The Short List
In alphabetical order, here are our top ten finalists for the 2010 Word of the Year selection:
bankster noun (informal) a member of the banking industry perceived as a predator that grows rich at the expense of those affected by an economic recession: trillions of dollars are flowing to the banksters in the form of near-zero interest loans.
[origin — 1930s: blend of banker and gangster]
crowdsourcing noun the practice whereby an organization enlists a variety of freelancers, paid or unpaid, to work on a specific task or problem: Kodak used social media crowdsourcing to engage its customers in their naming contest.
[origin — early 21st cent.: on the pattern of outsourcing]
double-dip adjective denoting or relating to a recession during which a period of economic decline is followed by a brief period of growth, followed by a further period of decline: higher food and energy prices could increase the risk of a double-dip recession.
gleek noun (informal) a fan of the television series Glee.
[origin — early 21st cent.: blend of Glee and geek]
nom nom (informal) exclamation an expression of delight when eating.
plural noun (nom noms) delicious food.
verb (nom-nom) eat delicious food with obvious enjoyment.
adjective (nom-nommy) descriptive of delicious food.
[origin — imitative; popularized by the noises made by the character Cookie Monster on Sesame Street(usually as “Om nom nom nom”)]
retweet verb (on the social networking service Twitter) repost or forward (a message posted by another user): people love to retweet job ads.
noun a reposted or forwarded message on Twitter.
Tea Party a US political party that emerged from a movement of conservatives protesting the federal government in 2009.
[origin — with allusion to the Boston Tea Party of 1773]
top kill noun a procedure designed to seal a leaking oil well, whereby large amounts of a material heavier than the oil—e.g., mud—are pumped into the affected well.
vuvuzela noun (also called vuvu) a long horn blown by fans at soccer matches.
[origin — origin unknown, perhaps from Zulu]
webisode noun 1. an original episode derived from a television series, made for online viewing.
2. an online video that presents an original short film or promotes a product, movie, or television series.
[origin — 1990s: blend of Web and episode
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