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Words of 1998

We’ve had the season of goodwill, of first-footing and wassailing, and we’re now well into the season of awards for the best of 1998. HarperCollins in Britain has just announced the result of its competition to choose the word that best represents the year. This follows the similar award by the American Dialect Society on 7 January, and a set of words of the year from Oxford Dictionaries that came out close to Christmas.

HarperCollins gave the prize to millennium bug, which supports my suspicion that British word usage is running about a year behind that of North America (you may recall it was the choice of the American Dialect Society for 1997, and it was getting a bit shop-worn even then). This year, the ADS has chosen the e– prefix, which I wrote about two weeks ago. It was also voted Most Useful and Most Likely to Succeed, awards I am less sure about.

Oxford doesn’t select one word, but instead produces a list of some of those which have come to prominence; HarperCollins appends a similar list to its winner and runners-up. ADS also provides a list of runners-up, and the three lists together give a picture of what specialists presumably think have been the most high-profile of the year.

The Oxford list is at the same time the longest and the one with fewest surprises. It makes clear it’s a selection of words which were spotted by their New Words team in 1998, not necessarily words which are new. If you’ve been a subscriber to World Wide Words for a while, you will have read about many of them already. (Quite a number of them have come from me, it seems, directly or indirectly; I did wonder why my Web site logs showed such interest from staff at Oxford near the end of last year! And, don’t tell Oxford Dictionaries, but I wrote about several of them in 1997.) So, no need to dwell overlong on analysis paralysis, biopiracy, black-water rafting, exformation, exoplanet, global distillation, portal site, gorge-walking, polyamory, trickle-up trend, or waitress mom.

Some others from the Oxford list: call centre (designed to handle large numbers of phone calls), domophobia (hostility towards the Millennium Dome at Greenwich), ecological footprint (impact or damage to the environment caused by human activity), euro-wasp (a large European species becoming resident in Britain), Furby (that toy), horse-whispering (from that film), rage (in all its variations). superweed (one that’s resistant to herbicides), and, perhaps inevitably, but also rather sadly, Monicagate, fornigate and zippergate.

The Oxford list is more international in scope than either of the others, and so includes some words I have a feeling I should have featured: Hansonism, the political policies of Pauline Hanson, leader of the Australian One Nation party (and the related term Asianisation); hoarding, which Oxford says has taken on a new meaning in Indian English that specifically refers to the illegal stockpiling of staple foods made scarce in 1998 by failed harvests (they also give ration shop for an official open-market outlet in India for the sale of essential commodities); and two terms from South Africa: gravy, a shortening of gravy train, widely used in 1998, Oxford says, to refer to government corruption, and muti murder, a spate of killings in Johannesburg that were related to muti (traditional African magic).

The HarperCollins appended list is described as “words coined in 1998”, a startling assertion, as it includes DVD, heroin chic, middle youth, mouse potato, grey market, pharming, and Y2K. These are newish terms, but I have citations for heroin chic from 1997, Y2K from 1996, DVD and mouse potato from 1994, and grey market from 1993, and I’m sure older examples could be found for all of them. They are words which achieved a certain prominence in Britain in 1998, but they were most certainly not coined in that year.

And these are the HarperCollins runners-up in its competition, in descending order based on the votes of readers, I assume mainly from Britain: Viagra, digital television, Millennium Dome, Zippergate, Monicagate, girl power, Furby, Cool Britannia and docusoap. Few surprises there, except that voters seem less cynical about the Dome than the press, and that they have been heavily influenced by a certain American scandal.

So has the American Dialect Society, whose runners-up to e– included, with what I suspect is a certain tongue-in-cheekness, sexual relations and is (though it surely depends what they meant by that word). Also included were Viagra and the various forms in rage.

It’s in the other ADS sections that choices reveal much about the lexical state of America (and perhaps what HarperCollins readers will be voting on in early 2000). In the Most Useful category: senior moment (a momentary lapse of memory due to age) got most votes, followed by multislacking (playing at the computer when one should be working) and open source (the source code of software programs available to all). In the Most Unnecessary category, most votes went to the entire Monica Lewinsky word family. Under the Least Likely to Succeed heading, votes were cast for, among others, explornography (tourism in exotic and dangerous places), although compfusion (a confusion over computers) came out on top. One other category: Most Original, won by multislacking, followed by angst bunny (a young woman with black clothes and lots of body piercing); Preslyterianism (a cult of Elvis Presley in the South), and bililoquy (a conversation with one’s alter ego).

What these various lists confirm, as it if needed any confirmation, is that British English is heavily influenced by American events and culture.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Jan. 1999

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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: 30 January 1999.