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Dennis Baron's Word of the Year for 2011: "Volatility"

Dennis Baron, English professor at the University of Illinois and author of the blog The Web of Language, writes:

The Web of Language Word of the Year for 2011 is "volatility." Volatility may not be trendy like occupy or Arab Spring, but it's the one word that characterizes the bipolar mood of 2011 in everything from politics to economics.

Volatility describes the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; scandals in college sports and investment banking; the Republican presidential scramble and the Greek debt crisis; regime change in Libya and in Italy; the Iranian nuclear build-up and the Fukushima nuclear melt-down.

Throughout the year, the Dow Jones Index has been the poster-child for volatility, jumping up and down by hundreds of points like a high-stakes game of Chutes and Ladders. Indeed, given the daily shake ups not just of the year that was, but of the ten years since 9/11, volatility could well be the word of the decade, and with no end to volatility in sight, it could be the word for the entire twenty-first century.

Other words pop up when we think of 2011. Occupy, which for centuries has meant 'to live in, conquer' and even, briefly, 'to have sex with,' jumped into our consciousness in the Fall as protests in New York's Zuccotti Park against economic inequality spread to other cities and to college campuses, along with its related vocabulary, the 1%, the 99%, and pepper spray. Occupy didn't develop the meaning 'to take over as a form of protest' until 1920, but since the start of the 2011 protests, occupy has been appearing regularly with just about any object, including occupy your couch, occupy everything and occupy this. 

The Oxford Dictionaries picked squeezed middle — an obscure term for those affected by the downturn that is favored by British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband — as the "global word of the year" for 2011, though as David Haglund wrote in Slate, it's not global. Haglund also objected that squeezed middle was neither "a word" nor "of the year." But language doesn't behave literally, so the Word of the Year, or WOTY, can be a phrase or even part of a word (a prefix or suffix, for example) as well as a single word. And the WOTY doesn't have to be coined in the year it wins, it simply has to capture that year in some way. But Haglund is right that in order for squeezed middle to be global, people living outside of England should at least have heard the phrase, even if no one but Ed Miliband knows what it's supposed to mean. Perhaps 99% would have been a better choice for Oxford's lexicographers, especially because it seems to refer to the same people as squeezed middle.

Other languages have their words of the year as well. A French group called Festival XYZ named attachiant(e), 'a person you can't live with, but can't live without,' as its word of the year — last year the group pick phonard, 'someone with their ear glued to their mobile phone.' The Dutch language group Onze Taal (Our Language Society) chose weigerambtenaar, 'an official who refuses to marry same-sex couples,' as its 2011 WOTY, beating out the Dutch words for Arab Spring and pee sack, 'a bag to be used in emergencies on trains without toilets.' And the 2011 Swiss word of the year is Euro-Rabatt, referring to the buying power of the Swiss franc in the wake of a declining Euro.

Word of the year nominees often come from major news stories or developments in popular culture. 2011 candidates included bailout, fracking, retweet, meltdown, and bunga-bunga (that's Italian slang for an obsolete meaning of occupy). It's noteworthy that Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi had to resign not because he was charged with consorting with underage prostitutes at bunga-bunga parties, but because of his country's mismanaged finances — so much for being a member of the 1%.

Even though many former WOTY winners resonate with the times (truthiness, blog, roadside bomb, and 9/11), some of them never gain traction (bush lips, plutoed, hypermiling, and locavore). That's why it's important to pick a Word of the Year that people both recognize and understand. Dictionary.com's choice of tergiversate as its WOTY fails in that regard. Tergiversate is supposed to reflect the ups and downs of the year, but the unfamiliar word, which is rare enough to be part of the English lexicon's equivalent of the 1%, really means 'desert, retreat, or change one's mind,' not 'be at the whim of fickle fortune.'

Volatility, 'readiness to evaporate or disappear,' seems a more apt description of the here-today-gone-tomorrow year gone by. We already know what volatility means, making it a word of the 99%, plus it's a fitting sequel to last year's Word of the Year, WTF, and it serves as a dramatic reminder to the 1% that a simple spin of the dial could evaporate enough of their fortunes so they wind up crushed by Fortune's Wheel.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday December 3rd 2011, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
When you mix oil with liquid oxygen do you have a volatile or explosive situation? Or both? Or better yet, when a debate producer puts Mitt Romney next to Rick Perry in a Presidential debate, does she expect a 'volatile' situation? Another definition of volatility reads "liable to change rapidly or unpredictably, esp. for the worse." I suspect in this situation volatile and explosive are interchangeable.
Wednesday December 7th 2011, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Mike (Florissant, MO)
Volitility is a noun, isn't it? When did nouns start describing things? Would a better choice be, "Volitile describes the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street..."? Or "The volitility of the Tea Party, etc.?

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