In 1999, the American Dialect Society’s word of the year was “Y2K.” In 2007 it was “subprime.” Now that we’re almost finished with the current year, it’s time to ask ourselves: Which word best communicates the spirit of ’11?
I have my own suggestions both for an overall winner and for runners-up and special-category winners. The list appears after the jump; first, though, a bit of explanation.
I followed the ADS’s criteria for selection, in this case:
- demonstrably new or newly popular in 2011
- widely and/or prominently used in 2011
- indicative or reflective of the popular discourse
- not a peeve or a complaint about overuse or misuse
Submissions need to meet only one of the criteria to qualify. Note, too, that “word of the year” is broadly defined as “vocabulary item”: it doesn’t have to be a single word. And because this is the American Dialect Society, words need to have been popular or prominent in the United States.
By the way, anyone can play this game. Check out the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year page to see how to submit your words via email, Twitter, or Facebook. If you’re planning to be at the society’s 2012 meeting in Portland, Oregon, you can participate in the voting at 5:30 p.m., January 5 6, at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower.
And now for my list, presented in alphabetical order. Linked words have been featured in this space during 2011.
Arab Spring. Modeled linguistically on 1968’s Prague Spring, the term refers to the popular uprisings throughout the Arabic-speaking world that took place earlier this year. Read Ben Zimmer on “Arab Spring.”
Artisan. The word that once signified “a craftsperson who uses traditional methods” was appropriated by Domino’s Pizza this year for a product that costs $7.99 and involves no artisans. Artisan is also used by mass-market chains Wendy’s, Starbucks, Panera, and Frito-Lay. Just as we are all divas now (or heroes), we are apparently all artisans, too.
Austerity. In Greece, in Italy, in Spain, in Ireland, in the UK, and—if certain presidential candidates and members of Congress have their way—in the US, too. Read my related post about Austerianism. The Latin root of the word, by the way, means “dry, harsh, sour, tart.”
Broke. The United States isn’t really broke (impoverished, bankrupt, penniless), but you’d never know it to hear House Speaker John Boehner and various newspaper editors. Read (or listen to) linguist Geoff Nunberg’s “Fresh Air” commentary from March 2011 about the current implications of broke.
Curate. Here’s what I wrote about curate when I nominated it two years ago: “It’s not just for museums anymore. A more elegant (or just pretentious) way of saying ‘select and organize,’ curate is now used by boutiques, nightclubs, and even journalists to describe their activities. ‘The Daily Beast doesn’t aggregate,’ says editor Tina Brown of her (let’s face it) news-aggregator website. ‘It sifts, sorts, and curates.’” Curate has become even more widespread since then.
Dadchelor party. A baby shower for fathers-to-be. (Also known as daddymoon, man-shower, and dadelor party.) First appeared in 2009, but usage soared in 2011, possibly thanks to a “Nightline” feature. My nomination for “Most Unnecessary Word,” a sub-category of the ADS vote. (Last year’s Most Unnecessary Word was refudiate.)
Downgrade. In August, the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded its long-term sovereign credit rating on the United States to AA+ because “the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened.”
FOMO. “Fear Of Missing Out” on social-media updates, news, conference sessions, parties, or anything else that sounds tasty. Popularized in a March 2011 post by Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake. (Sorry, there’s a problem with Caterina’s web address and I’m unable to provide a link.) A nice extension of similar acronyms such as POMO (postmodern). My nomination for “Most Creative Word.” (Last year’s Most Creative Word was prehab.)
Fracking. I nominated this word—a shortening of “hydraulic fracturing”—last year. Too soon? Maybe 2011 is fracking’s year: The word was all over the news because of protests in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Humble. From the #humblebrag hashtag to Rupert Murdoch’s Heepian apologia to Parliament to the “humble personal assistant” (Apple’s Siri), this modest little word kept cropping up this year. Here it is again, from the December 11 Sunday Styles section of the New York Times: “the humble cloth tote”—which, of course, is now a status symbol.
Kardash. When Kim Kardashian, who is famous for being famous, announced the end of her 72-day marriage, comedian/singer Al Yankovic tweeted: “72 days is now an official unit of time known as a Kardash.” He was retweeted more than 100 times. Kardash gets my vote for “Least Likely to Succeed.” (Last year’s winner: culturomics.)
Nontraditional start. How Mrs. Newt Gingrich’s best friend, Karen Olson, diplomatically labeled the adulterous affair that led to GOP presidential candidate Mr. Newt Gingrich’s third wedding: “‘They’re a great couple,’ she said, ‘that had a nontraditional start.’” The phrase joins “hiking the Appalachian Trail” in the lexicon of creative euphemisms for adultery. My nominee for “Most Euphemistic Word.” (Last year’s winner: kinetic event.)
Nymwars. The controversy over Google Plus’s real-names-only policy.
Occupy. At the top of almost everybody’s list, mine included, thanks to the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in September and spread to every continent. Ben Zimmer cited the word’s “talismanic power” and noted the creative ways in which it’s been used, from Occupy Sesame Street to Occupy Together. My nominee for overall WotY winner as well as for “Most Useful Word.” (Last year’s Most Useful was nom.)
Personhood. Used in two noteworthy contexts this year: to protest the “corporate personhood” upheld by Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision and in coverage of a November ballot measure in Mississippi that would have conferred legal “personhood” on fertilized eggs. The measure was defeated, 57-43 percent.
Planking. The Internet fad of the year: lying face down in an incongruous position, having your photograph taken, and posting the photo on the Web. It inspired a raft of copycat pastimes, including owling, stocking, and catbearding.
Swagger. Contradiction of the year: we are humble, yet we love our swagger. Rick Perry, Mick Jagger, Old Spice, the Swagger Wagon—the word was everywhere. Wordnik, the online dictionary, even named its API “Swagger.”
Tiger. Charlie Sheen claimed he had “tiger blood.” Amy Chua wrote about her life as a “tiger mother.” The Tiger’s Wife, a debut novel by 25-year-old Téa Obreht, was lauded on best-of-2011 lists. Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo, a play starring Robin Williams, opened (and closed) on Broadway. It was an interesting year, if not necessarily a good one, for namesakes of Panthera tigris.
Tot mom. TV hostperson Nancy Grace’s epithet for Casey Anthony, the Florida woman acquitted of killing her two-year-old daughter. (Grace was not exactly objective in her coverage of the trial; after the acquittal, she reported that “the devil is dancing tonight.”) Here’s Grace’s explanation for “tot mom.” “Tot mom” is my nomination for “Most Outrageous Word.” (Last year’s winner: gate rape.)
Tsunami. Hundreds of people died and the Fukushima nuclear reactor was severely damaged by flood waters after the 8.9 earthquake that hit northeast Japan in March.
Winning. Another Charlie Sheen-ism: it was the first word in the actor’s first tweet, and a repeated mantra in his interviews earlier this year. President Obama created Winning the Future, the budget initiative with the unfortunate acronym. Oddly, Winning the Future is also the title of a 2005 book by GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (subtitle: “A 21st-Century Contract with America”). “American Solutions for Winning the Future” was the name of Gingrich’s political committee until it was dissolved in July 2011.
Over to you. What are your nominations for WotY 2011? For reference, here’s a rundown of past WotYs by Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.