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Words of the Year 2012

No sooner had the smoke and din of Guy Fawkes Day subsided than Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year 2012. I swear such annual publicity exercises are, like Christmas advertising, shifting earlier in the calendar. Oxford’s choice was omnishambles, a word I’ve discussed previously. It’s defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations”. One reason for Oxford’s choice is its linguistic productivity: not only have we had the adjective omnishambolic but also derived forms, including Romneyshambles for the tactless comments on London’s ability to host a successful Olympic Games by the US presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Another is Scomnishambles, a Scottish omnishambles, coined in October 2012 when the Scottish government had to admit it hadn’t sought legal advice on whether an independent Scotland could automatically become a member of the European Union. As Oxford Dictionaries points out, the word may prove to be temporary and never join other coinages in dictionaries.

The US branch of Oxford Dictionaries curiously chose the verb gif (said variously with a hard or soft g, though for its creators it was hard), meaning to create an image using the Graphics Interchange Format, GIF, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012.

The British dictionary publisher Collins waited until 20 December to announce its own words of the year. Rather than one for the whole of 2012, its editors chose one for each month. They were selected from words submitted to its online dictionary by members of the public. The publishers admit that several don’t have the staying power to be worth adding to the print edition. My own guess is that at least 11 of the 12 will soon become footnotes in lexicographical history.

Among these also-rans were June’s choice of Jubilympics, a word I can’t remember having seen in print, a blend combining references to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and to the Olympics. May’s word was from the US: Zuckered, a play on suckered, an allusion to Mark Zuckerberg’s less than successful offering of shares in Facebook. One that became better known, at least in the UK, was games makers for the 70,000 volunteers who helped make the Olympics run smoothly. Mummy porn (or mommy porn) came into being through the success of the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, its sequels and its imitators. The term Gangnam Style experienced an explosion in exposure after the video in November by the South Korean Psy, whose weird dance became YouTube’s most popular clip. It was only appropriate that Collins’s choice for December was fiscal cliff, a melodramatic but effective pejorative for the huge reduction in US government spending and increase in taxes that was narrowly averted at the last minute.

The biggest yearly wordfest is that of the American Dialect Society, on whose head lies responsibility for the whole fashion for words of the year, since they thought of it first. Their annual conference is in Boston this week and their votes for the words of 2012 were held as usual yesterday evening in the usual semi-seriousness and high humour. Also as usual, nominations were put forward for terms (words or phrases) in various categories, followed by selecting the overall Word of the Year.

The first chosen was the Most Useful word of the year, which proved to be neither a word nor a phrase but two suffixes, -(po)calypse and -(ma)geddon, which were described as “hyberbolic combining forms for various catastrophes”, such as snowmageddon (first used for the blizzard of February 2010) and alpacalypse (for the Mayan prophesy that the world would end on 21 December; the first part is from alpaca, a poor choice since alpacas are South American, while the Mayans were a Central American civilisation). The winning Most Creative term was gate lice, airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to board. In the Most Likely To Succeed category, I expected fiscal cliff to be a runaway winner, but by 156 votes to 8, the winner was marriage equality, in reference to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

One term, legitimate rape, managed to win in two categories, Most Unnecessary and Most Outrageous, both appropriate descriptions of the extraordinary suggestion by the Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin that women can’t get pregnant following legitimate rape, a view that lost him the election. The Most Euphemistic term, self-deportation (the policy of making life so difficult for illegal immigrants that they voluntarily leave the country), was highlighted by Mitt Romney’s use of it during the presidential primary campaign. There was a special section for Election Word of the Year, which was won by the nomination from the floor of binders full of women, the unfortunate comment by Mitt Romney during the second presidential debate that while he was governor of Massachusetts he asked for more women suitable for public office and was offered binders full of them. There was a run-off in the Least Likely to Succeed class between phablet (an electronic device halfway between a smartphone and a tablet in size) and the write-in candidate YOLO (short for “you only live once”, a Twitter acronym among young people that is not so much about living life to the full but more about brash decisions and unthinking risks — “driving hands-free at 100mph! YOLO!”). A cry came from the audience at this point, “They’re both stupid!”, to which came the reply “That’s the whole point!” The audience agreed, making them joint winners.

The Word of the Year, after much voting in a packed auditorium, was none of these, but hashtag, a write-in from the audience, which is a word or phrase prefixed with the # symbol (usually called hash in the US) which identified keywords or topics in Twitter messages. It narrowly beat marriage equality.

The ADS shares its conference with the American Name Society, which since 2004 has chosen its Names of the Year. Two terms we’ve already met were runners-up: Gangnam, which belongs here because the style is named after an affluent district of Seoul in South Korea, and fiscal cliff, which was voted Trade Name of the Year (not because it is one but because the category title is a catch-all for anything that doesn’t fit other categories). Lovers of British period TV soap opera will be pleased to learn that the choice for fictional name of the year was Downton Abbey. The 2012 overall winner in the onomastic stakes was Sandy, a name that was burned into the brains of East Coast Americans through the hurricane (call it a superstorm if you want — another trendy word of 2012) which devastated New Jersey and New York in late October.

The last of the annual awards was the Macquarie Dictionary Word of the Year 2012. Its selection was phantom vibration syndrome. This is a form of technological anxiety, sometimes called ringxiety (ring + anxiety) in which mobile phone users with an obsessional fear of missing incoming calls become convinced that the phone has vibrated to indicate a call when it hasn’t.

It was selected from the results of public voting in 15 categories by the committee overseeing the 2012 awards, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Dr Michael Spence.

Phantom vibration syndrome reminds us that technology has disadvantages as well as value. The reverse view was marked by the committee’s honourable mention of crowdfunding, a technique by which projects and causes gain funding through small donations sent in through social media networks and websites. Whether you consider that technomite is positive or negative depends on your worldview; it was another honourable mention, a humorous term for a young child adept in using digital media.

All these, of course, are found throughout the online world and know no national boundaries. An honourable mention of the committee that’s rooted in Australian culture is marngrook, although it’s not a word specifically linked to 2012. It was a game played by Aboriginal people in south-east Australia before European settlement (the name means “game ball” in aboriginal languages of the state of Victoria). Large numbers of players took part over an extended area using a ball made from various local materials, such as stuffed possum skin. The game reads like a cross between soccer and basketball — a player dropped the ball on his instep to kick it high in the air and other players leaped to catch it. Contemporary reports suggest it was more like an extended kick-about, with no real rules, scoring or winner. It has been cited as an influence on Australian Rules football.

The other honourable mention was First World problem, which was explained by the Macquarie Dictionary as “a problem that relates to the affluent lifestyle associated with the First World that would never arise in the poverty-stricken circumstances of the Third World, as having to settle for plunger coffee when one’s espresso machine is not functioning.”

Among the other terms selected by visitors to the Dictionary’s website as winners in individual sections were peachcot, a stone fruit with a smooth skin, a cross between a peach and an apricot in appearance and flavour; green tape, bureaucratic regulations and associated paperwork deriving from environmental legislation; and wine flu, a colloquial term for a hangover.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Jan. 2013
Last updated: 16 Feb. 2013

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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.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/ar-wor3.htm
Last modified: 16 February 2013.