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Words of 2011

Occupy, Arab spring, squeezed middle and pragmatic were among the words and phrases that were picked out by various organisations as characterising 2011. It’s curious that all were composed of long-established words; what links them is that they took on new associations during the year.

The first two of these terms were undoubtedly the most important. The earlier, Arab spring, actually predates the changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil war in Algeria, and unrest in countries such as Syria that were in the news throughout 2011. It was coined early in 2005 as a play on Prague spring, the 1968 democratic uprising in Communist Czechoslovakia. Its early promise has been tarnished through conflict in Egypt between activists and the ruling military council and the brutal retaliation by the government of Syria against demonstrating civilians.

The innocuous occupy has long referred to people taking possession of a building as a form of protest, such as workers occupying a factory or students taking over a college building. It first appears in print in the 1920s. References to a movement named Occupy Wall Street began to appear in the press at the beginning of August, but a curiosity of its creation is that the term predates the movement. It was coined by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, which launched a campaign on Twitter with this title on 13 July. The movement opposes wealth inequality and urges government action against banks and corporations. It quickly moved beyond Wall Street and the US and terms such as Occupy Toronto, Occupy Sydney and Occupy London appeared. (The latter started as Occupy the London Stock Exchange but when this proved impossible protesters camped around St Paul’s Cathedral instead.) By November, occupy had turned into a figurative prefix in the US, with Occupy Friday (also called Buy Nothing Day), a boycott of corporate retailers on the big shopping day on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and Occupy Christmas, a related cold-shouldering of big business during the holiday present-buying frenzy in favour of smaller stores. Occupy was chosen as Word of the Year by Time magazine, the Global Language Monitor and the American Dialect Society. It also appeared in the Lake Superior State University 2012 List of Banished Words with visitors arguing that it was already “overused and abused”.

The Occupy movement generated tag terms that appeared in some lists: the 99% or 99 percenters, meaning the vast majority of ordinary people held to be at a financial or political disadvantage to the top money makers, the 1%. Two others were human microphone — also as human megaphone or people’s mic — a low-tech method of amplifying a speech at an Occupy gathering by having surrounding people repeat it line by line, and twinkling, a silent way to register approval or disapproval of a speaker by wiggly hand gestures.

Though both Arab Spring and occupy were among the shortlisted terms in the list of words of the year selected by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, their top choice was squeezed middle, a shortened form of squeezed middle-classes. This is frequently attributed to the current leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, but it was actually first used in a political context in the UK by the former prime minister, Gordon Brown, at the Labour Party conference in 2009. It’s that part of society, neither rich nor poor, that’s regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes, and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty. Both the US and UK editors of the OED selected it as the term with the greatest resonance in 2011, an odd choice in view of its comparatively low visibility on both sides of the Atlantic. It was also far from new: squeezed middle-class dates from the 1980s and had a peak in popularity during the 1992 US presidential election, while squeezed middle was already a term among some economists by the late 1990s.

Two of the more oddball selections were also standard English words. The dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster picked pragmatic, a choice that raised some eyebrows in surprise since it didn’t directly apply to any event of 2011. The publisher selected it because it was the word most often looked up in its online dictionary during the year. There were two peaks, one in the weeks before the US Congress voted in August to increase the nation’s debt ceiling, and again as its supercommittee tried to craft deficit-cutting measures this autumn. The publisher said that most people looked it up to find out if it was meant as a compliment. Dictionary.com preferred the rare word tergiversate, trying to weasel out of an untenable position by repeatedly changing one’s attitude or opinions. The website’s argument was that it captured the character of 2011, regardless of its popularity or ubiquity, though the year had no notable excess of political ducking and diving.

The usual crop of neologisms made most Words of the Year lists, though as always few of them will be remembered by this time next year, let alone become part of the language. Humblebrag was coined in April by the comedy writer Harris Wittels on Twitter for deceptively self-effacing boasting by celebrities and was selected as Most Useful Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Merkozy, a blend of the surnames of the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president Nicolas Sarkozy, became popular, mainly in the British press, as a way to pithily express the close political relationship between the two leaders in their attempts to resolve the Eurozone crisis. Since sex and scandal always attract attention, particularly if they’re combined, the strange phrase bunga bunga came to prominence in connection with wild parties held by the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, which one participant said comprised twenty naked woman and one naked prime minister. It is said to have African origins. That leads me to WTF, not in its usual expansion but as short for Win The Future, a political phrase of both Democrats and Republicans in 2011, and probably 2012, too.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Jan. 2012

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 14 January 2012.