Once again, it’s the season when the dictionary and language people are hard at work winnowing words — new ones, catchy ones, much-looked-up ones, over-used ones — in preparation for crowning their latest Word of the Year (WOTY). This year, we thought we might do a bit of winnowing of our own.
The announcements, mostly made in January, are always fun occasions for us amateur word lovers, in part because we get to roll our eyes at the pros’ ideas of a good WOTY (pronounced “whoa-tee,” according to the U.S. Oxford Dictionary’s editor). But they are also genuinely interesting, because of the light shed by the WOTY finalists on the year that we as a planet have just been through — or at least, those of us on the English-speaking bits.
Take some of last year’s choices. Merriam-Webster’s 2005 Word of the Year, based on the number of online lookups it received, reflected something between a wish and a hope: “integrity.” Perhaps we were seeing so little evidence of integrity that year we temporarily forgot what it was.
Meanwhile, the American Dialect Society’s top word for ’05 was the quirky “truthiness,” popularized on a satirical U.S. television show and suggesting a similar general disillusionment. According to the society, truthiness refers to “the quality of preferring concepts or facts that one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.” Not surprisingly, the word got even more play in 2006.
Also last year, the New Oxford American Dictionary went with “podcasting,” that arcane but increasingly ubiquitous activity that we won’t bother to define here, because if you don’t know what it means yet you obviously don’t need to.
“Sudoku” made the list, too, showing that there were still some forms of entertainment around that were not Internet-driven. Then there was Lake Superior State University’s famous annual list of words that deserve to be banished for “misuse, overuse and general uselessness,” topped by “surreal.”
As always, Oxford’s lexicographers have jumped in early this year, releasing their typically nerdy 2006 WOTY list in mid-November (how do they know December won’t pop up a keeper?). Chances are good they’ll be the only ones picking “carbon neutral” as Word of the Year. They put up a valiant argument for it: “When you see first graders trying to make their classroom carbon neutral, you know the word has become mainstream.” OK, Oxford, if you say so.
In the meantime, we’ve cobbled together our own Top 10 list. Unlike Merriam-Webster’s, this one in no way reflects actual usage or interest on the part of the public. Unlike Oxford’s, it doesn’t represent deep, responsible pondering. It’s an impressionistic, off-the-top-of-our-heads roundup of words or phrases that the news drummed into all of us this year. In alphabetical order, they are:
dwarf planet: What Pluto, formerly the littlest planet, was ignominiously demoted to in August by the International Astronomical Union. How rude.
Kazakhstan: The short explanation is Sacha Baron Cohen. The long one is the British comedian’s satirical hit movie, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”
macaca: A U.S. senator’s re-election bid was derailed when he used this exotic racial slur, providing instant shorthand for sudden, self-inflicted political death. (John Kerry really macacaed when he botched that so-called anti-Bush joke.
one, two: How Japan’s newest equine stars, Delta Blues and Pop Rock, finished after really hitting their stride at the Melbourne Cup.
polonium-210: Radioactive poison of choice in the murky world of former KGB agents.
sectarian violence: What Operation Iraqi Freedom became hopelessly mired in after the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in February.
thumpin’: U.S. President George W. Bush’s brief but accurate account of what his Republican Party suffered in November elections, largely as a result of the previous entry.
unity government: What Iraq and Lebanon need. What they don’t have — or apparently want.
Wii: Nintendo’s system certainly won the nomenclature wars, what with its Mii avatar and its Wii-mote.
YouTube: See our comment on “podcasting,” above, but it’s influential. How influential? Iran blocked access to it last week.
So, that’s 2006, through our personal WOTY lens. Now we sit back and wait for the rest of the big boys’ lists.
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