If it’s December, it’s time for those list-loving dictionary folks to be announcing their Words of the Year again — and in the process providing editorial writers with a revealing lens on the past 12 months. This year, their labors yielded a couple of startlingly different scenarios.
First, the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary came up with a tech-heavy shortlist and ultimately pronounced “podcast” their Word of the Year. For those of you who think a podcast might have something to do with peas, the word is a combination of iPod and broadcast, and denotes “a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player” (such as an iPod). If you find that arcane, wait till you read the rest of the Oxford list.
A few days later, the people at Merriam-Webster put “integrity” at the top of a news-dominated word list that included such 2005 headline staples as “tsunami” and “conclave.”
The difference in emphasis is readily explained. The Oxford editors were looking for new words, and their selection was also more subjective, based as it was on a variety of sources from blogs to technical journals to suggestions from the public. The Merriam-Webster list, by contrast, was an objective tally of the words most often looked up on the company’s online dictionary this year, whether old, new or resurrected.
Oxford’s list therefore skews toward a picture of what new things people chose to do in 2005 — a portrait of fads, if you like, with a casual nod to the news. Merriam-Webster’s, by contrast, provides more of a portrait of things that simply happened — major news events, in particular — and the debates or questions they sparked.
There are no overlaps, although it could be argued that Merriam-Webster’s “pandemic,” the year’s seventh most-looked-up word, equates to “bird flu,” one of Oxford’s runners-up for Word (or, presumably, Phrase) of the Year. It seems that some things just loom large enough to grab everybody’s attention.
Other than that, the lists diverge markedly. If Oxford is to be believed, we spent 2005 fine-tuning our techno-toys, dancing in Latin nightclubs, worrying about our diet and once in a while scanning the headlines. The words challenging podcast for the top spot included “ICE” (numbers stored in a cell phone “in case of emergency”); “rootkit” (software installed on a computer by someone other than the owner, in order to conceal things); “reggaeton” (Latin American dance music blending reggae, hip hop and rap); “trans fat”; “IED” (improvised explosive device, such as a car bomb — the only hint of Iraq); “IDP” (internally displaced person — a glance at wars and natural disasters); and, of course, bird flu. Oh, and they tell us we played “sudoku.” But we already knew that.
Merriam-Webster, however, assures us that we were a little more serious this year. After all, the word we looked up most often, by far, according to the company’s president and publisher, was “integrity” — a “firm adherence to a code, especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility.” What he can’t tell us is why, although he did hazard a wild guess: “Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to think that recent political and social developments have made the word integrity particularly appropriate to issues that people are talking about.”
Actually, it’s hard to argue with that, or even to think of a spot on the planet where it doesn’t apply (Bhutan, perhaps?). The same could be said of No. 10: “inept.”
The rest of the list shows us clearly gripped by the year’s biggest news stories. The violence in Iraq has gone on so long now we apparently have its vocabulary down; we didn’t even look up “insurgent” in great numbers, despite U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent urgings. But disasters, both present and future, spawned some words we weren’t too sure of: “tsunami,” “refugees” (was or was it not it politically correct to call victims of Hurricane Katrina refugees?), “levee” and “pandemic.”
We also wondered what a conclave was when the Catholic Church set about electing a new pope. And we were troubled by the meaning of “contempt,” looking it up so often it clocked in at No. 3. Let us hope we were interested in the word’s legal application, and nothing more existential.
All things considered, we are betting that more people will see themselves reflected in the staid, anxious, diligent Merriam-Webster list than in the hip, cutting-edge Oxford list. We take it on faith that podcasting is the hot new pastime, but we refuse to believe that a majority find it more important than, say, integrity.
Let us just hope that “bird flu” and “pandemic” drop off both lists in 2006.
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