Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The American Dialect Society's "Word of the Year" Nominees

Greetings from Baltimore, where the American Dialect Society is holding its annual conference. Along with scholarly presentations about American linguistic varieties, the ADS is also making selections for Word of the Year (2009) and Word of the Decade (2000-09). ADS members fixed on a final list of nominees for the different categories that will be up for a vote on Friday.

The list of nominations (available in PDF form here) has many entries that should be familiar to Word Routes readers. For instance, in the category of "Most Useful" words of '09, fail (as a noun or interjection) and the prefix un- (as in unfollow, unfriend, or unfavorite) made the cut. We talked about fail in August, and the un- prefix in May and then again in September. They will be competing with the political suffix -er (as in birther and deather) and rogue (popularized by Sarah Palin's memoir Going Rogue).

The "Most Creative" category includes Botax, a proposed tax on cosmetic surgery, and Dracula sneeze, the method of covering one's mouth while sneezing in a gesture reminiscent of Dracula and his cape. Among "Most Unnecessary" nominees are two media-driven flashes in the pan: Octomom, the epithet for Nadya Suleman, mother of octuplets, and Salahi, an eponym for gate-crashing discussed in this space last month.

A frontrunner in the "Most Outrageous" category is Sarah Palin's notorious phrase death panel, part of our lexicon of the health care debate in August. The "Most Euphemistic" category, meanwhile, features two phrases championed by our own euphemism-meister Mark Peters: Gov. Sanford's evasion hiking the Appalachian trail and PETA's preferred term for fish, sea kittens.

One of the nominees for "Most Likely to Succeed" is twenty-ten, which will likely beat out two thousand ten as the preferred name for the new year. Meanwhile, in the "Least Likely to Succeed" category are aughties, noughties, and other unsuccessful names for the first decade of the 21st century. (Linguist Dennis Baron concluded that it is simply "the decade with no name.")

In the voting session on Friday, winners will be declared in all of these subcategories, along with an overall Word of the Year. The WOTY winner could come out of the subcategories (like fail or -er from Most Useful), or it could simply be an "at large" choice (like H1N1 or public option). After picking the 2009 WOTY, the ADS will go on to select a Word of the Decade from a list of very familiar items: blog, google (as a verb), text (as a verb), 9/11, war on terror, and green (in the environmental sense).

Stay tuned for news of the winners after Friday's vote!


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 8th 2010, 5:25 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I enjoyed reading your article, as it was illuminating and thought provoking as usual. That is to say that after all was said and done (I suppose that the votes were given already for each category), one question came into my mind:

Why do we have word categories for WORD OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES, MOST USEFUL (is failing really useful?! To whom?), MOST CREATIVE, MOST UNNECESSARY, MOST OUTRAGEOUS, MOST EUPHEMISTIC, MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED, LEAST LIKELY TO SUCCEED, WORD OF THE DECADE 2000-2009, but we don’t have a category for words nominated as THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SOUNDING WORDS and a category for words nominated as the BEST WORDS TO INSPIRE BEAUTIFUL THOUGHTS?
Friday January 8th 2010, 9:43 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
My guess is that it was not Sarah Palin but a speech writer for Sarah Palin who coined "death panel."
Friday January 8th 2010, 11:46 AM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
My guess is that Sarah Palin can take credit for getting it right and saying it like it is. "Obamacare" will give us a "Death Panel." I expect both words to become more popular.
Friday January 8th 2010, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Thomas C. (Madison, WI)
Sarah Palin has thrown "rogue" around so liberally, I hardly know what it means anymore. "Birther"--or simply the "-er" suffix--gets my vote. (Wait, do I get a vote?) It was so important to our annual year of 2009 that even The Onion took notice in its article, "Afterbirthers Demand to See Obama's Placenta."
Friday January 8th 2010, 8:07 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
To Thomas C. and other liberal-minded intellectuals:
Read Sarah Palin's book and you will understand the meaning of the word, "Rogue".
Without the intellectual curiosity to investigate what you castigate, your liberal education has been for nothing!
I find a pertinacious annoyance flaring up within when I hear the hateful degradations leveled against this true patriot. She has accomplished more in her life to date than many of their own ilk have accomplished in a lifetime.
To call her an "embarrassment" only reveals the ignorance and political focus of the name-caller.
Liberal hatred of conservative values is only based on self-interest and lack of a true knowledge of what it means to be free and to understand what it was that our Founding Fathers were about when signing the Declaration of Independence!
When I read those words from 1776, I simply do not understand the modern liberal mindset.
Saturday January 9th 2010, 5:58 PM
Comment by: Thomas C. (Madison, WI)
Saying that Sarah Palin uses a word too much is not a political statement.
Saturday January 9th 2010, 9:58 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
My apologies to Thomas C.
There is so much ignorance on display these days; sometimes I find it difficult to tolerate the constant noise and I become a part of it myself!
As a non-political statement I would only say that I DID read her book and personally found it quite delightful and transparent.
Sunday January 10th 2010, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Thomas C. (Madison, WI)
No worries. We're having fun here. Fun with words via thesauruses (thesauri?).
Saturday January 8th 2011, 8:32 PM
Comment by: Thinking Reed
It seems to me the word blog and blogosphere do more to capture the essence of the internet revolution that is sweeping our world. Therefore I advocate for blog/blogosphere as word of the decade.
Sunday January 9th 2011, 7:53 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, first and foremost, people need to cool down and enjoy life. There is much to enjoy in spite of all the noise.
I'm for having fun, Thomas!

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