Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

And the Word of the Year is...

So what exactly makes a word the Word of the Year? The Visual Thesaurus traveled to the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in Chicago last week to find out. For the past eighteen years this scholarly group has been selecting words or phrases that have become newly prominent or notable in American English. Their goal is to demonstrate that change in language is normal, nonstop - and even fun.

This past Friday over a hundred professors, students, researchers, reporters -- and one baby -- squeezed into a conference room at the Chicago Hilton to debate the most intriguing words of 2007. Candidates for Word of the Year were nominated the night before in seven categories: Most Useful, Most Creative, Most Unnecessary, Most Outrageous, Most Euphemistic, Most Likely To Succeed, Least Likely To Succeed and Real Estate Words -- an impromptu addition to reflect the impact of the mortgage crisis.

If you expected to hear sonorous scholars solemnly pontificating, you picked the wrong crowd. This group was lively, humorous and impassioned about their choices of words. In the Most Creative category, a man stood up to support Googleganger, which means "a person with your name who shows up when you google yourself. David Bowie -- no joke -- made his case and the crowd was swayed: Googleganger beat out lolcat, an odd picture of a cat on the Internet with an intentionally ungrammatical caption, tapafication, the tendency of restaurants to serve food in many small portions, and "boom," an instance of a military explosion (used in the phrases left of boom and right of boom).

The prefix "green-" proved popular, too, winning both the Most Useful and Most Likely To Succeed categories. What about Least Likely To Succeed? That dubious honor went to the word strand-in, "a protest duplicating being stranded inside an airplane on a delayed flight," which bested Billary, for Bill and Hillary Clinton, among others. "Strand-in is dead!" someone shouted. "Why would you protest being delayed when you can catch another flight?"

How about the real estate words? "This year we added a special 'nonce' category of real estate words," explained Dr. Allan Metcalf, the Executive Secretary of the ADS (read our interview here), "to reflect the peculiar fate of real estate." Those words were:

Exploding ARM "An Adjustable Rate Mortgage whose rates soon rise beyond a borrower's ability to pay"

Liar's loan/liar loan "Money borrowed from a financial institution under false pretenses, especially in the form of a 'stated income' or 'no-doc' loan which can permit a borrower to exaggerate income."

NINJA "'No Income, No Job or Assets.' A poorly documented loan made to a high-risk borrower."

Scratch and dent loan "A loan or mortgage that has become a risky debt investment, especially one secured with minimal documentation or made by a borrower who has missed payments."

Subprime "A standard banking term that became newly prominent in the past year. Used to describe a risky or poorly documented loan or mortgage."

One of the professors in the audience stood up. "I've been thinking about 'subprime,' because it's an odd combination of very different words," he said. "One means 'less than,' and the other means 'the best.' If I were to give my students a 'subprime grade,' they'd expect a 'B.' I think it's a wonderful example of how language functions."

It was time for the vote: By a show of hands, "subprime" won by a wide margin.

By now the crowd was getting itchy. They were ready to vote for Word of the Year. "This is a weighty responsibility," cautioned Dr. Metcalf as he asked for nominations.

"For Word of the Year, I think 'subprime' is a good one," said a man, "because until this year I never heard it. But this past year I heard it ten-bizillion times." Another person stood up. "I think 'subprime' has been generalized," she said. "It describes everything that's bad with the housing market."

But others differed. "I wish to speak in favor of 'green,'" a woman said, "due to the fact that Al Gore won an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize. So maybe we should get with the program." When the laughter died down, a student stood up to say that "subprime" and "green" didn't speak to the younger generation. "Facebook," was her choice.

"I'm torn between 'green' and 'subprime,'" a professor said. "But 'subprime' seems to represent not just the word itself but a whole life-altering experience for way too many people in this country in terms of the consequences of those loans."

Now Dr. Metcalf was ready to tally the votes. He asked the audience to raise their hands in support of each nominated word. "Surge," "googleganger" and "green" all garnered less than ten votes. But when he got to "subprime," a roomful of hands shot up. Dr. Metcalf and his colleagues counted. And counted. And by a vote of 79 people, "subprime" was named the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year to loud applause!

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

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A look at how language changes and evolves.
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