Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Year in Words, 2011 Edition

Yes, it's time for that annual tradition: picking the words and phrases that best define the past year. Did occupy occupy your attention? Were you talking about tiger moms or tiger blood? Or were you paralyzed by the condition known as FOMO (fear of missing out)?

As in past years, I've compiled a list of my lexical favorites in advance of the American Dialect Society's selection of Word of the Year. This year I'm taking a more active role in the proceedings, as I've been named chair of the society's New Words Committee. I'll be presiding over the WOTY show when the ADS gathers for its annual conference in Portland, Oregon from January 5th to 7th. On the evening of the 6th, the Word of the Year will be selected and publicized. The choice always gets plenty of media attention, and this year the interest level is already running high. Just this week, I've been called upon for numerous interviews in anticipation of the big event. (Let's hear it for our local public radio stations: WNYC, WBEZ, WPR, and WGBH, to name a few!)

Recent WOTY winners have included the financial terms subprime and bailout (2007 and 2008) and the tech terms tweet and app (2009 and 2010). What will it be this year? As always, the general public is invited to submit nominations for the word or phrase that best characterizes the past year. The ADS is looking for new or newly popular terms that were prominently used in 2011 and reflect popular American discourse. Nominations can be sent to woty@americandialect.org.

Now, on to my lexical favorites. I've selected five words or phrases in each of four significant categories: domestic affairs, foreign affairs, pop culture/lifestyle, and tech. You can read more of my thoughts on these words in this Sunday's Boston Globe, where I'm debuting as a biweekly language columnist.

Domestic affairs:

occupy: Back in mid-October, when the Occupy Wall Street protests were less than a month old, it already appeared to me that the word occupy would be the heavyweight in the WOTY competition. I devoted a Word Routes column to the word and then went on the public radio show "On the Media" to further expound on why I thought occupy was the clear frontrunner. Regardless of whether you agree with the demonstrators or their nebulous message about financial inequalities, there's no denying that the word itself has achieved surprising prominence over the past few months, turning into an emblem for the whole protest movement. Since then, others have agreed with my estimation, such as Geoff Nunberg on NPR's "Fresh Air" and the readers of Time Magazine. Nunberg also made a case for the 99 percent, from the Occupy slogan, "We are the 99 percent," but ultimately decided on occupy, which he describes as "that rare linguistic phenomenon, a word that bubbles up out of nowhere and actually helps to create the very thing it names."

twinkling: Along with the 99 percent and occupy itself, the Occupy movement has also popularized some terms relating to grassroots protest. My favorite is twinkling, a term for the wiggly hand signals that the Occupiers use to register approval or disapproval. (The signals have also been called jazz hands.)  Another method of communication is the people's mic or the human microphone, a system of amplifying a person's speech by having surrounding people repeat it line by line.

win the future: Back in January, President Obama was clearly trying to popularize the catchphrase win the future in his State of the Union address. Sarah Palin, upon hearing Obama talk about winning the future, decided to shorten it to WTF to describe her reaction to the president's proposals. As was pointed out at the time, Republicans have talked about winning the future, too, particularly Newt Gingrich, who used it for the title of a book. A Gingrich "Super PAC" was recently announced, and its name is a slight variation on the theme: Winning Our Future.

downgrade: Standard & Poor's downgrade of the U.S. debt rating was big news in August, leading critics of the Obama administration to use it more metaphorically to describe what they see as the downward trend in the nation's stature. I looked at some politically charged uses of the term here.

supercommittee: The Congressional committee charged with finding a solution to debt reduction turned out to be not so super after all. Instead, to use the overworn political expression, they simply kicked the can down the road. Because the supercommittee failed to come up with a solution before the November 21 deadline, Congress is now faced with the possibility of mandated cuts, known as sequester or sequestration. If those massive budget cuts do indeed kick in automatically, look for sequester to be a contender for Word of the Year in 2012.

Foreign affairs:

Arab spring: The phrase that summed up the momentous changes in the Middle East has its origins in the Prague Spring of 1968, and the so-called "springtime of nations" in 1848. I delved into its history here.

bunga bunga: This term referring to the sex parties that Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had is a bit mysterious. A German actress claimed that the whole bunga bunga business started as Berlusconi's nickname for her, and eventually morphed into his term for wild parties with young girls. Regardless of where it came from exactly, the term enlivened an already lively scandal, and may have helped to seal Berlusconi's demise.

leading from behind: When The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza quoted an Obama administration official characterizing the policy on Libya as leading from behind, Obama's opponents seized on the term as evidence of his foreign policy failings. Expect to hear more of that, and about Obama's so-called declinism, in the 2012 election season. I talked about both terms here.

Mubaraked: When Hosni Mubarak was stubbornly holding on to power in Egypt in February, Internet entrepreneur Samih Toukan got people on Twitter to come up with definitions for Mubarak as a verb. One suggestion was "to farcically outstay one's welcome." Another was "to stick to something," so that if you're Mubaraked to your chair, you're unable to get out of it. Read more about the humorous wordplay of the Egyptian protest movement here.

deather: In 2011, a deather was someone who didn't believe in the official story of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It's modeled on birther, a conspiracy theorist who doesn't believe Obama was born in the United States. Two years ago, deather had a different meaning: it was used to refer to people who believed Sarah Palin's claims that health care reform legislation would lead to death panels.

Pop culture/lifestyle:

winning: Remember Charlie Sheen's crazy Sheenisms? They were all the rage back in March. Sheen's tiger blood and Adonis DNA may have faded from our collective memory, but his confident interjection winning still pops up from time to time, generally as an ironic callback to Sheen's outrageous public rants. You can find more Sheenisms here.

planking: This is what preoccupied some people in 2011: lying rigidly face down in a public place in an imitation of a plank, having one's picture taken in said position, and circulating the picture online. This begat various other inexplicable fads, including owling (crouching like an owl), horsemaning (posing as if you're the Headless Horseman, with an accomplice posing as the disembodied head), and finally Tebowing (mimicking the prayerful pose of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow). Don't look for any of these to have much staying power.

lip dub: A lip dub is a video that documents specially choreographed lip-synching to a song, usually involving a large number of people — like officemates, or even an entire town. The Grand Rapids lip dub, with thousands of residents of Grand Rapids, Michigan lip-synching to "American Pie," is likely the apotheosis of the genre.

tiger mother/tiger mom: Amy Chua may have only used tiger mother in the title of her controversial book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," but that was enough to set off contentious debates about different cultural approaches to parenting, with the strict tiger mother or tiger mom as the central figure.

brony: Who knew that the television show My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic, clearly aimed at young girls, could inspire fandom in adult males? Or that such fanboys would band together and call themselves bronies (a blend of bro and ponies)?

Tech:

humblebrag: The inspired coinage of comedian Harris Wittels is one of my favorites of 2011. Seeing the faux humility pouring forth from celebrities on Twitter, Wittels nailed the phenomenon with the term humblebrag. It's just one of many ways that Twitter has become a vehicle for sarcastic putdowns, both of others and of oneself.

gamification: When you see even the most mundane experiences in terms of "leveling up" and "unlocking achievements," then your world has been gamified. Gamification has proven quite successful for businesses looking to boost engagement with consumers by getting them to spend time doing game-like things, like earning "badges" by checking into locations using the social networking site Foursquare.

narb: Coined by Ananda Mitra, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University, narb is short for "narrative bit," a snippet of personal information about your life that you're willing to share with others. Facebook has turned into a clearinghouse of narbs, particularly with the move this year of having your Facebook Timeline record all manner of activities, from watching movies to cooking meals. I talked about Facebook's attempts to have you share your precious narbs in my piece for The Atlantic, "The Rise of the Zuckerverb: The New Language of Facebook."

nymwars: When Google Plus, Google's answer to Facebook, required users to register with real names and not pseudonyms, it started a tizzy among those who would prefer to remain pseudonymous. The nymwars launched by the anti-real-name crowd ended up being a black eye for the new social media site.

FOMO: Anyone who spends too much time glued to a laptop or smartphone, monitoring every tweet and Facebook update, can identify with the acronym FOMO, short for "fear of missing out." There's always far more information out there than we're able to process, and this inundation can lead to a paralyzing sense of anxiety. Best to step away from the screen and spend some time interacting with your loved ones rather than being crippled by FOMO!

[Update: My Boston Globe column is available online here. And welcome, listeners of NPR's Morning Edition!]


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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:

Thursday December 15th 2011, 3:46 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
As usual, Ben, you're my favorite!
I love words, our changing culture, and the fun to be found in FOMO-land!
Thursday December 15th 2011, 4:24 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
Same here, Ben, in spite of your infobrag
Thursday December 15th 2011, 9:39 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Mubaraked: not what one does but what happens to one. To wit, to be stabbed in the back by a longtime supporter
Sunday December 18th 2011, 4:35 AM
Comment by: Robert M. (Spring City, PA)
Thanks Ben, I really enjoyed this one.

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