I’ve been reading some excellent books—more about them soon—but right now I want to tell you about a couple of interesting podcasts for language lovers.
Word Matters is “a show for readers, writers, and anyone who ever loved their English class”; it’s hosted by four Merriam-Webster lexicographers: Emily Brewster, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski. Episodes have tackled singular kudo, the pronunciation of antennae, and everyone’s favorite bugaboo, irregardless (which is definitely “a word” even though my editing software red-squigglies it. Yes, “red-squigglies” is also a word. Because I said so, that’s why.)
Science Diction is “a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them,” brought to you by the folks at NPR’s “Science Friday” and hosted by Johanna Meyer. Did you know that restaurant originally meant “a medicinal soup”? Do you know “the linguistic reason why ‘Rocky Road’ sounds so dang delicious”? How about the connection between cobalt and German folklore? Lots more like that, too.
I’ll get to the regularly scheduled links in a bit, but I wanted to lead off with some recommendations from my 2019 media diet (a term I’ve borrowed from Jason Kottke, whose blog always makes for tasty consumption).
Goodnight decade! Goodnight year! Goodnight words that made us cheer—or jeer—and which summed up the stories of 2019.
So far, Oxford Dictionaries has selected climate emergency as its #WOTY19, Collins Dictionary—clearly tapping into the same zeitgeist—picked climate strike, and Cambridge Dictionary chose upcycling. In Australia, Macquarie Dictionary singled out cancel culture from a longlist of 75 words (see my own take on canceled below). Here in the US, Dictionary.com chose existential (as in existential threat and existential choice) while Merriam-Webster picked they(the singular gender-neutral or nonbinary pronoun). “What do these words tell us?” asked CNN’s Samantha Allen. “That it’s Generation Z’s world now—and if it’s not already, then it should be soon.”
One of my favorite non-dictionary WOTY lists is posted each year as a countdown from December 1 to 31 by “The Emmett Lee Dickinson Museum” in “Washerst, PA.” As of this writing, the Dickinson has given us constitutional crisis, perfect, Green New Deal, infested, and other 2019-isms. Meanwhile, on Twitter, John Cunningham proposed plant-based, a non-judgmental alternative to fake meat.
On Friday, January 3, the American Dialect Society—the progenitor of all these WOTY contests—will vote on its own Word of the Year at the society’s annual meeting in New Orleans. If you’re in the neighborhood, you may want to drop by; the voting is free, open to the public, and hella fun. You may also submit nominations by email.
My list follows ADS guidelines, which say that a WOTY must be
— demonstrably new or newly popular in the year in question — widely and/or prominently used in the year in question — indicative or reflective of the popular discourse — not a peeve or a complaint about overuse or misuse
Each year at its annual meeting, held in early January, the American Name Society announces the most notable names of the previous year. I’ve already picked my brands of the year, but names of the year are selected by different criteria. So here’s my ANS-qualified list, which uses ANS categories and criteria: linguistic innovation, potential to influence language use, and ability to capture national attention. “Popularity or notoriety is not deemed important,” says the ANS.
Before I present my own list, I want to recommend the Namerology blog’s recent post, “The 2019 Name of the Year Is Karen.” In case you hadn’t heard, Karen is being used as a mocking slur against a certain type of Generation X white woman—insensitive, self-absorbed, even racist and/or homophobic. “The use of a given name as a slur for a demographic group is simultaneously more general and more personal,” writes Namerology author Laura Wattenberg. “It invalidates people wholly and indiscriminately.” Curiously, Karen peaked in popularity not during Gen X but years earlier, during the peak Baby Boom years. As Wattenberg notes, “Gen X can’t seem to step free of the baby boom’s shadow, even to be insulted.”
The wildfires have barely been extinguished here in California, but it’s already word-of-the-year season across the pond, where three prominent dictionaries chose words or phrases with a common theme: climate change, or preventing it. Cambridge Dictionary went first, with upcycling: “the activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material.” Collins Dictionary chose climate strike: “a protest demanding action on climate change.” And Oxford Dictionaries picked climate emergency from an all-environmental shortlist that included “climate action,” “climate denial,” “eco-anxiety,” “extinction” and “flight shame.”
Let the record show that lexicographer Jane Solomon, recently of Dictionary.com, spotted the trend back in September.
Last Sunday, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I saw the world premiere of a fascinating and disturbing documentary, We Believe in Dinosaurs, about the building of the Ark Encounter, a $102 million pseudoscientific tourist attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky. (You can read about the Encounter’s 2016 opening and about Ken Ham, the “creationist” zealot behind the endeavor, here.)
The film doesn’t yet have a distributor, so I can’t tell you where it will play next. What I can tell you is the story of 137 Films, the production company that made We Believe in Dinosaurs. It’s one of the best how-they-got-that-name stories I’ve read, and certainly one of the best numeral-as-name stories.