By Charles Layton
I just heard the news that some competitors in the Olympic Games got caught trying to “throw” their badminton matches. But you know what?, I don’t care. I just don’t have Olympics fever any more.
Maybe it’s because I’m a language maven. A word wrangler. A connoisseur des mot. And when folks like me feel a craving for competitive thrills, we don’t necessarily turn to archery or weightlifting or women’s Group C beach volleyball. We would just as soon turn to the American Dialect Society’s annual Word of the Year contest. Talk about an adrenaline rush!
For the past 22 years, the ADS has been choosing not only the major-category winner — the word of the year itself — but also the winners in several sub-categories: “most useful” word, “most creative” word, “most unnecessary” word, “most outrageous” word, “most euphemistic” word, and the twin categories “most likely to succeed” and “least likely to succeed.”
They also choose, every 10 years, a “word of the decade.” For the decade of 2000-2009 that word was google as a verb. It’s a good choice, one of those brand names like Kleenex that has come to denote something generic, beyond itself.
The word of the decade for the 1990s was web, which certainly seems to have shown staying power. The word of the entire 20th century was jazz (I can’t think of a better one, can you?) and the word of the millennium was “she” (which I’m not sure I quite understand).
The word of the year for 2009 was tweet, which seems OK, but the word of the year for 2008 was better: bailout.
The top-word choices are often based on highly serious, even world-shaking events. The word for 2007 was subprime. Even more of a downer was the one for 2002, WMD or weapons of mass destruction. But occasionally something charming pops out on top. The best word winner for 2006 was the verb to pluto or to be plutoed, meaning to be demoted or devalued.
The best word of 1998 was not a word at all but a prefix — e — as in email or e-commerce. It’s the only time a single letter of the alphabet has won word of the year.
Reading over these lists affirms what an impact the Internet and its ancillary devices have had on our life and culture. The word of the year for 2010 was app. Of course!
One of the more interesting categories is “most likely to succeed.” Looking back over the years one finds some stellar names in this category. For 1999 the word most likely to succeed was dot-com. Good choice. For 2001 the word of the year and the word most likely to succeed were one and the same: 9-11. Most likely to succeed in 2002 was blog. In 1991 it was rollerblade.
But lest you think these people at the ADS are infallible genius-prophets, it pains me to report that they’ve produced the occasional clunker. The word most likely to succeed in 2000 was muggle, the Harry Potter term for a non-wizard, which came to mean a mundane, unimaginative person. I don’t hear that much on the streets of Ocean Grove, do you? Most likely to succeed in 2005 was “sudoku” — referring to a Japanese number puzzle.
The category that’s been the most fun over the years is “most creative” word. This list includes, in 2007, the word googlegänger, meaning a person with your name who shows up when you google yourself. In 2003, it was freegan, someone who eats only free food. In 1997 it was prairie dogging, which means popping one’s head above an office cubicle to see what’s going on.
The most creative in 2010 was judged to be “prehab,” meaning preemptive enrollment in a rehab facility to head off a potential relapse. But the one I would have voted for is the runner-up: the word sauce as an adjectival suffix, as in awesome-sauce meaning great or lame-sauce meaning stupid. I also like the term fat-finger, a verb that means to mistype, as by accidentally striking more than one key on a keyboard/pad.
Here’s the latest list — chosen for the year 2011. Play the Olympic theme in your head as you read these, and imagine the words standing on podiums with medals around their necks:
Word of the year — occupy.
Must useful — humblebrag, an expression of false humility, especially by celebrities on Twitter.
Most creative — Mellencamp, a noun meaning a woman who has aged out of being a “cougar” (after John Cougar Mellencamp). That may be OK, but I’m more fond of the runner-up, which was “bunga bunga,” a name for the sex parties involving former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Most unnecessary – bi-winning, a term used by the TV star Charlie Sheen to describe himself, pridefully dismissing accusations that he was bipolar. (Runner-up was amazeballs, which is just a slangy variant of the word “amazing.”)
Most euphemistic — job creator, referring to a member of the top one-percent of money makers.
Most likely to succeed — cloud, referring to the online space for data processing and storage.
Least likely to succeed – brony, meaning an adult male fan of the “My Little Pony” cartoon franchise.
In conclusion, if you’re really into this stuff like I am, you can see all of the complete lists, going back to 1990, by clicking here. It’s a walk down memory lane, and it affords a unique perspective on America’s recent history. It’s both entertaining and educational. Can you really say that about the Olympics?