The idea of ending each year by announcing words or phrases that came to special prominence during the year or which encapsulate some significant issue of it is one that has been seized upon by publicists for dictionaries, who know from experience how hard it is to promote such invaluable but unsexy products. They all got the idea from the American Dialect Society, which proudly proclaims that it is “the longest-running such vote anywhere”, having started in 1990.
However, so many organisations are now running Words of the Year (life is short, let’s abbreviate that to WOTY) that lexicography fatigue has seriously set in. An article in The New York Times on 12 December 2007 records, “Jan Freeman, a language columnist for The Boston Globe, has grown weary of it all. ‘The WOTY season now rivals our endless holiday shopfest, stretching from Halloween into January,’ she wrote. ‘I can’t help thinking that 10 weeks of WOTY fever is about eight weeks more than anyone wants.’”
Nevertheless, for those of us interested in the changing English language, such events can tell us about words we have missed, or allow us to disparage the publicity-driven choices that are sometimes made by editors and PR people in desperate search of a few column inches in newspapers.
First out of the gate for 2007 was the New Oxford American Dictionary, with a term that has hardly yet impinged on the public mind in the US, let alone anywhere else, and which as a result gained the announcement numerous dismissive comments. The word was locavore, for a person who seeks to reduce the distance food travels to reach them by buying locally. The press release noted that “The choice reflects an ongoing shift in environmental and ecological awareness over the last several years. Lexicographers at Oxford University Press have observed that this social transformation is having a noticeable effect on the English language.”
If Oxford’s choice was somewhat arcane, that from Merriam-Webster was bizarre. It had presented a list of 20 words on its Web site that had been the subject of a large number of searches during the past year and asked visitors to vote. The winner was w00t, an unlikely choice that makes one wonder if electronic ballot-stuffing had been going on. The font used on this page can’t make it clear, but w00t is spelled with a couple of zeroes in the middle. It’s pronounced /wuːt/ though, just as though the zeros were Os. It’s a small cry of joy, perhaps after completing some task, after besting an opponent, or for no reason at all. Merriam-Webster says, “It became popular in online gaming as part of what is known as l33t (leet, or elite) speak, an esoteric computer language in which numbers and symbols are put together to look like letters.”
Next up was the old stager, the American Dialect Society, whose members vote in semi-serious mode for words of the year in various categories at their annual meeting at the beginning of each year, this time in Chicago. The 2007 winner, announced on 4 January 2008, was subprime, a term thrust this year from financial jargonhood into the mainstream. It refers to mortgages that are offered to applicants who do not have a good credit history or who will struggle to meet the cost of the loan; the packaging of these loans into investments sold on to other financial institutions led to destabilisation of the global financial markets in 2007.
Just when we thought the pizzazz was over, the Macquarie Dictionary of Australia announced its winners at the beginning of February 2008. It had asked visitors to its Web site to vote on their favourite words of the year in no less than seventeen categories (move over, the Oscars). The term receiving the most votes out of the 75 on offer and which therefore won the People’s Choice Award was password fatigue, the frustration caused by having too many different passwords to remember, which results in our being unable to remember even the common ones. The choice of the Macquarie Dictionary WOTY Committee was pod slurping. The press release commented, “The committee felt that the most important criterion for word of the year should be linguistic creativity and evocativeness, rather than simple worthiness or usefulness.”
One intriguing aspect of the WOTY phenomenon is that it is almost entirely confined to English. The only other language in which such events take place to any marked extent is German. The Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the German Language Society) chose Klimakatastrophe (climate disaster) as its WOTY for 2007; it said this concisely points up the direction in which climate change is heading. A jury of Swiss journalists chose Sterbetourismus (death tourism, which has been used as the English equivalent). This refers to the practice of terminally ill people travelling to Switzerland to take advantage of the country’s liberal laws that permit assisted suicide.
An even odder aspect of WOTYs in German is that the groups involved like also to choose their Unworte des Jahres (unwords of the year), words they consider to be crassly inappropriate. For example, at the end of 2007, the jury of Swiss journalists selected Klimakompensation (climate compensation; the English equivalent is carbon offset). This refers to the way many people salve their consciences — for example — by paying money to a tree-planting scheme to offset the environmental effect of their taking a long-haul flight somewhere.
A jury of German linguists announced the word they considered to be the worst linguistic misjudgement (sprachlicher Mißgriff) of 2007: Herdprämie, literally “stove reward”. This came about as a result of a debate that has been taking place in Germany about the need to provide more childcare facilities, the alternative being to persuade more mothers to stay at home to look after their children by paying them Betreuungsgeld (child-raising money). The chairman of the jury, Prof Dr Horst Schlosser, said Herdprämie “defames parents, especially women, who educate their children at home instead of claiming a place at a day nursery.”