2011 Word of the Year

The Word of the Year. Everybody’s doing it. Something about one year ending and another beginning brings this behavior out. It’s so common that lots of folks have even taken to just abbreviating it “WOTY.”

There really wasn’t any word (or phrase) that wowed me so much this year that I’d make a point of raising it up. What I’ve done in this post instead is a quick rundown of some of the words that others have selected, and I’ve picked a “winner.”

Tergiversate has been selected by some. That seems a complete non-starter. I don’t remember ever seeing this word in print before or hearing it used. I suspect most people wouldn’t even know how to pronounce it. Next…

Swag was proposed by others. Because we needed to have another short form word from pop-culture? No, I don’t think so. Swag (or “shwag” as we sometimes pronounce it here for laughs) already has two other definitions in common use. Ambiguity is fatal to pop adoption. Swag is out.

Merriam-Webster went with pragmatic, and offered a list of runner-ups. They’re all perfectly good words (except the phrase at #10 on the list – what they hell were they thinking when they slapped that on there?). I recommend them. But none of them impressed me as words that were especially apt in 2011, compared to any other year. What else have we got?

Maybe kettling or ftw. Both strike me as losers (would that be “ftl?”) that will disappear as quickly as they came. For what my opinion is worth, kettling lacks Darwinian fitness, while ftw, even if loved by many, is one of those internet words with momentary cool that most people will stop using once they realize that everyone else understands it. That will secure it a place in slang dictionaries, but saps it of staying power

I was hoping to include the American Dialect Society’s 2011 word of the year, but it won’t be voted on and announced until Friday night (1/6/2012). The ADS is as hit-and-miss as anyone else, though. They’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and sometimes their choice is solidly relevant at the moment (Y2K, chad, subprime, app), even potentially lasting (tweet probably has legs), but they’re just as capable of picking flash-in-the-pan losers as anyone else (bushlips? I have to ask again…bushlips?). I’ll post some kind of update next week, once they’ve announced their selection.

As I said above, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. There were no words that struck me as so entirely necessary that I felt a need to claim one as my own. I gained a new fondness for “jackass,” but that was just me: it became my universal curse word, especially with children in the car. Trust me, it’s a lot better than any of the words I used to use: some of those were closer to the ultimate Dilbert swear word, capable of causing people and their pets to burst into flames (sorry…couldn’t find that strip online for you). The word of the year should be more universal than any individual’s expletive.

With those contenders knocked out, where do we turn?

Here’s my pick: Geoff Nunberg made an excellent case for occupy on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (you can listen here, if you’ve read enough today). He’s got a point about “dirty hippie,” also.

An awful lot of people jumped on occupy and claimed it as their own word of the year…in the weeks after Nunberg (and some others) made the case. Imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery.

From an allegedly statistical angle, you might want to take a look at what the folks at the Global Language Monitor had to say (they also chose occupy). It’s an interesting list, but since they don’t provide their methodology for collecting data, it’s hard to be sure how reliable it really is (take a look at some of the previous years’ winners – quite a few will leave you wondering). Still, their lists are worth a read.

You might think GLM was premature, declaring their words of the year with only 11 months of data. I’m willing to give them a pass, but I give them almost no credence on the other end: they predicted the twelve most important words of 2012 before 2011 was even over. If we come back and compare in a year I’ll be shocked if even four of them make their 2012 end-of-year list.

There you have it. Some words of the year, and my thoughts. I think occupy takes it. But if you’ve got something better to argue for, let me know. Please!

Update: Surprising no one, the ADS selected “occupy” as their word of the year on January 6th. More interesting are some of the words on their lists of “most useful” (FOMO?), “most creative” (mellencamp), and several of the others. These folks have their ears attuned to new usage better than most. Full press release here.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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4 Responses to 2011 Word of the Year

  1. Kimberley says:

    Interesting idea for a word of the year. I’m not sure what I would pick. Just caught this today and thought it was also worth a few thoughts. Which words would you want banished? http://www.npr.org/2012/01/01/144546187/an-amazing-trickeration-banished-words-for-2012

    • Kimberley – It’s very interesting that you bring this up. I’ve actually got a draft post pending that touches on LSSU’s 2012 banished words list. I realize that they compile their annual list just in fun, but I thought I’d take a crack at it anyway. If you glance at their historical lists (they’ve been at it since the late ’70s), it’s not really about the words. It’s much more a barometer of pop culture trends and political speak that have “jumped the shark.” Much of what they’ve “banished” has flourished in common use. But sometimes they’re years ahead of their time: they first suggested banishing “Nuk-u-lar” in 1978!
      The list has a kind of charming, crotchety tone-deafness to how the language is actually used in practice. I view it as a safe outlet for exasperated prescriptivists and assertionists to vent their pent up rage at the rest of us (providing some entertainment in the process).

  2. Pingback: Banished words? LSSU takes on 2012 | thebettereditor

  3. Pingback: What if we held a contest and nobody won? (The 2012 word of the year.) | thebettereditor

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