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Word of the Year

Krissy Clark

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Words of the American Dialect Society
(Blair Chavis)
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Grant Barrett is a lexicographer, meaning, he edits dictionaries. He's also the vice president of the American Dialect Society. And when you get him talking about the Word of the Year vote, there is one thing he's quick to point out.

"I always like to stress that it's not serious," he says. "It's not a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals." Though he does admit there are a lot of corduroy jackets and elbow pads. "And then we have a handful of bow tie wearers."

But, to get back to his point, Barrett likes to stress that the Word-of-the-Year vote is "not a bunch of pointy headed intellectuals getting together to officially pronounce the new words in English. We're not a big august body, entering words into the English language lexicon officially, because such a thing doesn't exist."

Grant and his bow tie-wearing colleagues say that when they get together in Chicago to sift through the memorable words of any given year, they are not in the business of prediction. It would be a fool's game, Barrett says, to guess which words will have a future, which words will stick. Still, Barrett's society has had its fair share of successes.

"I think we did very well in previous years," Barrett says. "For example, in 2005 we picked the word Sudoku. Podcast was another one." The American Dialect Society scored another win when its members voted "blog" as 2002's Word-Most-Likely-To-Succeed. "Dot-com" was 1999's.

But how good is this group of non-pointy-headed intellectuals? I went to a bar recently with some friends, to find out. I trotted out the words nonchalantly, peppering them in my casual conversation.

Experiment #1:
Me: Did anyone Gingrich you over the weekend?
Friend: Umm ... I may have seen a lizard? I have no idea what you're talking about.

Gingrich, the most useful word of 1994, did not seem to have caught on. Its definition: "To deal with government agencies, policies and people in the manner of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich."

Experiment #2:
Me: When you were traveling over the holidays, did you have Infobahn access?
Friend: Info ... bahn? Ah, what is that? Is that like the autobahn, but for information?
Me: Exactly
Friend: Oh the information super-highway!

Believe it or not, the word Infobahn was indeed 1994's Most-Promising-Word-of-the-Year. Information super highway was, incidentally, the Word of the Year in 1993.

Experiment #3:
Me: Have you guys been listening to the bushlips that have been going on in the run up to the Iowa Caucus.
Friend: The bushlips?
Me (losing confidence now): There's been a lot of bushlips. Haven't you noticed?
Friend: No. I'm from Iowa though.

I put this to Grant Barrett, the American Dialect Society Vice President. "Bushlips is the most notorious failure of the American Dialect Society," he told me. "It was a passing word used once or twice perhaps in reference to the senior George Bush's phrase 'Read my lips: no new taxes.' It probably didn't last ten minutes after they voted on it."

So what words do last?

"A lot is unpredictable," says Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. For words to last, he says, they must fill a specific need. Or, on the other hand, they could just start with the letters "sn."

"Sniff, snuffle, snout, snorkel," Pinker lists. Notice how many of these words have something to do with your nose. "Perhaps they also pertain to looking down nose at someone," he continues. "Like snotty, snooty, snobby, snippy. No one really knows where it originated. But it might be that you can almost feel your nose wrinkle when you say the word 'sn."

Another strategy for lexicographical longevity: make your word a bad word. Pinker says the more taboo the subject, the more new words it spawns. By one count there are 1,200 words for female genitalia. One of the latest being va-jay-jay.

Which brings us to another way to make your word a lasting one: Get Oprah Winfrey to say it. Grant Barrett, of the American Dialect Society, calls this "The Oprah Effect." He says this year alone, Winfrey has taken at least two words from obscurity to celebrity. Va-jay-jay. And Nose-bidet. Oprah was "single-handedly responsible for making millions of people nationwide aware of the term nose bidet," says Barrett.

So, if Oprah Winfrey can change language in a single episode, does that mean language is becoming less populist? Has the power over our dictionaries fallen into the hands of too few? Barrett says no.

"It's always been that way. Think about all of the words that we use on a day-to-day basis, including the cliches and the colloquialisms that we learned originally, culturally, from Shakespeare. One hundred or 200 years ago, Shakespeare was your popularizer."

But, Barrett also says we hold in our hands, or our mouths, the power to keep language democratic. "The vote that we do for the American Dialect Society is a smaller version of what we as English speakers do every day," Barrett says. "When you choose a word, to say or to write, you are actually casting a vote for it. You are saying, this word is important, it does what I want it to, and I think I should use it."

So, forget politics this weekend. What word are you endorsing in 2008?

Listener Suggestions for Word of the Year

My word of the year is anthropomorphism. I learned about this term in my ethics class when we were discussing animal rights. This describes my relationship with my "babies"--my two cats, Eduardo and Fiona. Much to my roommate Isaac's chagrin, I would often talk to my "babies" and make cooing noises when I petted them. Through gritted teeth, he would remind me that they are not, in fact, human and I should STOP treating them as such!!

What's worse is when my boyfriend can't tell when I'm talking to him or my cats. "I love you," I once told Eduardo as he lay on my chest. "I love you, too," my boyfriend replied. I smiled to myself, not correcting him. Look, I know they're not human but I can't help myself; they might as well be. I doubt I would love them any less than if I had actual children of my own.

Michelle Long
Kent, Ohio

My favorite word for 2007 is kakistocracy -- government by the least qualified, most unprincipled citizens.

Phyllis Goldin
River Falls, Wis.

My favorite word this year is buzzkill - someone or something that turns a fun time into a drag. The second runner up is "fretinize" - as in don't fretinize or don't worry about it.

Cindy Bradshaw
Minnetonka, Minn.

My word for 2007 is Schwannoma. It is a nerve tumor that is not usually fatal and can be removed and recovered from fully without much fear of re-occurrence. A couple of weeks after the birth of my daughter on January 29, I noticed a lump the size of a walnut at the base of my neck on my left shoulder. It took about two months, lots of scans (my favorite is the CT scan), lots of doctor appointments and lots of Web research to get the final diagnosis. The lump was a Schwannoma tumor on my left C5 Brachial Plexus nerve.

Before surgery, my life had been changed by my wonderful new baby. After surgery on June 6, my life would never be the same. Recovery would be a lot bad, some good and many surprises. I can happily say that seven months later I have almost full use of my left arm back and the pain is almost non-existent. Mainly, I am just glad to have my life back even if it was changed by something that was only the size of a lemon.

Alison McPhail
Hanover, Minn.

The word is water boarding, unfortunately, and how no one is willing to call this torture. Changing the meaning of a word has certainly become part of our current political culture. I'm surprised that we don't have a family board game called water boarding yet, of course, made in China.

Shelley Lake


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