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The Top Language Stories of 2011

University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron is a regular Visual Thesaurus contributor, and we're proud to feature selected pieces he has written for his site, The Web of Language. Here, Dennis looks back on some of the top language stories that crossed his radar in 2011.

2011 was a big year for language in the news.

The Web of Language picked volatility as its 2011 word of the year because it embodied the precipitous ups and downs of the year's politics, economics, even its weather. But there were plenty of other words we could have picked as well, like winning, Arab Spring, and hashtag. Winning seemed to signify losing in 2011, and not just for Charlie Sheen. The end of 2011 saw the end of an era in Iraq, as we walked away from Iraq much as we walked away from Vietnam, without winning. Vietnam is now a major American trading partner, but it may be some time before anything but oil is shipped here with the label, "Made in Iraq."

In 2011 we moved from last year's preoccupation with the Tea Party to this Fall's focus on Occupying Wall Street. In between we talked about tsunamis and meltdowns, the Spring's Arab Spring and the Fall's Greek Debt Crisis. Apparently, Tweeting in Arabic is the fastest growing segment of Twitter, prompting one Saudi royal to buy a $300 million stake in the company either to prevent the Arab Spring from coming to Saudi Arabia, or to ensure he's on the right side when the revolution gets there.

In 2011 we celebrated the centennial of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, though critics expressed concern that the venerable dictionary dropped old favorites like cassette tape from the pages of its new twelfth edition to make room for more important new words like sexting. And we welcomed the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which, its publishers warn us, may be "the last print dictionary," though critics objected when the AHD relabeled the offensive term anchor baby as 'offensive.'

2011 saw politicians continue to mangle English—Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann mispronounced "chootspa" for chutzpah, and British Labour leader Ed Miliband promoted the uncatchy "squeezed middle," a phrase that, when used, was only used in England. Despite this, the Oxford Dictionaries picked squeezed middle as their choice for global word of the year.

2011 also saw a language revival. We are bombarded with stories about languages dying out, so it was exhilarating to read one about the rebirth of Wampanoag. The Natick Indians spoke Wampanoag when they greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620. But no one speaks Wampanoag any more—after killing as many Wampanoag speakers as they could during King Philip's War (1675-76), the British banned the language. The Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project has been active for some years now, with a web site and a recent film that documents the language's return. Hopefully it will thrive, but it's hard to keep endangered languages going, and harder still to bring one back as more than a curiosity once its last speaker has died.

Speaking of language and the Web, 2011 has been a big year for language and technology. A federal judge ruled that independent bloggers aren't journalists. Another federal judge declared that personal attacks via Twitter were constitutionally protected speech. In other Twitter news, famed Canadian writer Margaret Atwood declared that Twitter actually boosts literacy.

Speaking of #Twitter, given the importance of hashtags this past year in reporting everything from Charlie Sheen's pathetic #winning to the #arabspring that many saw as actually winning, it's not surprising that the death of North Korea's "dear leader" #kimjongil was reported on Twitter before Kim Jong Il's death hit US television news. Given the usefulness of Twitter in promoting words as well as revolutions, why is hashtag not in the dictionary? It's not in Merriam-Webster's, not in the OED, not in the brand new American Heritage. It's certainly not in Dr. Johnson's.

Lexicographers may argue that hashtag doesn't need a separate dictionary entry because it's a transparent compound, joining hash (the symbol also called the pound or number sign) with tag (a label or keyword), much as shopping bag refers to a bag for shopping, or network signals a work or creation made of netting, or an abstract organization resembling a net. Of course Dr. Johnson did define the all-too-transparent network in his dictionary, though he did so in a way that is far from transparent: Network,  'any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.' 

Number words counted for a lot in 2011. On Sept. 11, we remembered 9/11, whose most significant linguistic impact ten years on has been the term 9/11. Then there was 9-9-9, Herman Cain's tax plan, which proved as flat as his campaign (did any of Cain's fundamentalist supporters notice that the 999 is the demonic number 666 turned upside down?). In addition, there's the complementary 1% and 99%, that numerical division in society made popular by the Occupy Movement in which the few move farther and farther from the many (the irony may not be lost on voters that all the presidential candidates, posing as champions of the 99%, are card-carrying members of the 1%). One difference between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement is that the Tea Partiers want to protect the 1% because they secretly hope one day to join it by #winning the Lottery, while the Occupy protesters recognize the Lottery as nothing more than a soak-the-poor government entitlement, the equivalent of a flat tax.

2011 didn't see just the emergence of new words and numbers, we also got a new imaginary number. According to the OED, an imaginary number is "a quantity that can be expressed in terms of the square root of a negative quantity, usu. √−1" (this will not be on the test). The imaginary number of the year is iPhone 5. Imaginary numbers are actually real, not imaginary, but even though the imaginary number i is real (it's the symbol for √ -1), the iPhone 5 is not. All year long we waited and waited, and in the end all we got was the iPhone 4s.

Speaking of phones, as of 2011, 84% of Americans had mobile phones and 200 million Americans were on Facebook. In the U.S., you're either online, on the phone, or both. And more and more you're online or on the phone at the wheel: according to a new report, at any given moment in 2011, 660,000 American drivers had a cell phone glued to their ear, and another 120,000 were texting while they drove. Distracted driving, Webster's New World Dictionary 2009 word of the year,persists as a major addition to our vocabulary, to the point where the National Transportation Safety Board  this year banned employee use of phones while driving.

And speaking of even more imaginary numbers, the April 1 report that the House of Representatives had passed H.R. 401, a bill to ban texting in Spanish, combined the growing American fear that English needs protection with the widespread conviction that texting destroys our literacy. This April Fool post turned out to be the most widely-read Web of Language story of 2011. Which says a lot about language in the year that was.

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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:

Tuesday December 20th 2011, 5:33 AM
Comment by: Jan Freeman (MA)
Yep, Michelle Bachmann picked up on the Cain number, on Twitter: "When you take the 9-9-9 plan, and turn it upside down, the devil's in the details." Nice roundup!
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 7:12 PM
Comment by: Krazy
Tuesday December 20th 2011, 10:09 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Just curious-- what is the demonic connotation with 666?
Saturday December 24th 2011, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Susan D.
@Fiona W:
from wikipedia:
In the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (13:17-18) cryptically asserts 666 to be "the number of a man," associated with the beast, an antagonistic creature that appears briefly about two-thirds into the apocalyptic vision.

It is not uncommon to see the symbolic role of the integer 666 transferred to the digit sequence 6-6-6. Some people take the Satanic associations of 666 so seriously that they actively avoid things related to 666 or the digits 6-6-6. This is known as hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia.

Gotta love that last word. Though I think it would take less time to just say 'fear of 666'.
Saturday January 21st 2012, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Fiona W. (Portland, OR)
Thank you Susan!

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