Word Routes

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"App" Wins as 2010 Word of the Year

Once again the American Dialect Society has performed its not-so-solemn duty in anointing a Word of the Year (aka WOTY), and the 2010 winner is app, as in, "There's an app for that." I'm just back from Pittsburgh, where the ADS held its annual meeting in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America, and I've got the full report.

I've provided on-the-spot coverage of the WOTY vote in past years (for 2008 it was bailout, and for 2009 it was tweet), but this year I played a more active role in the proceedings as the incoming chair of the ADS New Words Committee. (That title means I'll also be keeping track of neologisms for "Among the New Words," a quarterly feature in the ADS journal American Speech.) I assisted ADS Executive Secretary Allan Metcalf in presiding over the selection and making sure all the votes were tallied.

On Thursday night, as I reported here, we had held a meeting to nominate words in a number of various categories. Those nominees were only the starting point in the freewheeling gathering to vote for the winners on Friday. We had lively discussions for each category, culminating in the final WOTY selection, with each winner determined by a show of hands from the approximately 125 members of ADS and LSA who filled the room. (You can follow the photos in the LSA's Flickr feed to get a sense of the action, and there's also some video below.)

Allan welcomed the audience to "the Oscars of new words," and then we were on our way with the first category, the Most Useful Word of the Year. Nominees included vuvuzela, the South African noisemaker from the World Cup, the verb fat-finger (to mistype, from hitting more than one key at once), nom (an onomatopoetic expression of pleasure in eating, in the manner of Cookie Monster's "om nom nom"), and junk (as in BP's failed junk shot to curb the Gulf oil spill, the junk status of Greece's credit rating, and the immortal line, "Don't touch my junk!" in protest of the new TSA pat-down procedure). Junk and nom were the top vote-getters, but since neither had a majority, a run-off was held, and nom emerged the winner. (If you're mystified by nom, check out Know Your Meme for an explanation, and there's some linguistic discussion on the phonetics blog of John Wells and The Economist's Johnson blog.)

Next came the Most Creative category, with candidates including -sauce (a playfully intensive combining form, as in weak-sauce and awesome-sauce), spillion (an immense number, as in gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico), prehab (preemptive rehab à la Charlie Sheen), and phoenix firm (a troubled firm that declares bankruptcy and then reinvents itself). In a runoff, prehab beat out -sauce.

In the Most Unnecessary category, everyone's favorite Palinism, refudiate, won handily. Then it was on to Most Outrageous, where the winner was gate rape, one of the more hyperbolic terms for what the TSA would prefer to call an "enhanced pat-down." Enhanced pat-down was, in fact, in the running for Most Euphemistic (the favorite category of VT contributor Mark Peters), but it lost out to kinetic event, the Pentagon euphemism for a violent attack on forces in Afghanistan.

In the prestigious Most Likely to Succeed category, the winner was trend as a verb, meaning "to exhibit a burst of online buzz" (as in, "Justin Bieber is trending on Twitter right now"). That beat out such candidates as hacktivism (activism by means of computer hacking) and -pad as a suffix for tablet computers on the model of Apple's iPad. This was followed by Least Likely to Succeed, which had a surprise winner that wasn't on the original list but was instead nominated from the floor: culturomics, the confusing name for Google-aided research into the history of language and culture. (I picked apart the phonetic and semantic difficulties of culturomics here.)

We set up two special categories this year: Election Terms and Fan Words. Election Terms, with such expressions as man up, mama grizzly, and Obamacare, didn't move the assembled throng, who ended up voting to toss out the entire category and move on. That took us to Fan Words, where gleek (a fan of the TV show "Glee") handily triumphed over belieber (a fan of Justin Bieber), little monster (a fan of Lady Gaga), Twihard (a fan of the "Twilight" series), and Yat Dat (a native-born fan of the New Orleans Saints). Allan Metcalf, who admitted to being mystified by the candidates in this category, declared, "It's gleek to me!"

Finally it was time for the biggie, the overall Word of Year category. Two of the Most Useful candidates were nominated again for WOTY: nom and junk. I had laid out a case for junk as a WOTY contender in my most recent On Language column in The New York Times Magazine, and my argument was convincing enough for some in the room. Nom was championed by several of the younger scholars in attendance, notably Maryam Bakht of Hunter College, whose stump speech included the line, "A vote for nom is a vote for a happy word!" Bill Kretzschmar of the University of Georgia threw another word into the mix: app, the abbreviated form of "(computer) application" that has become so omnipresent in the past few years thanks to apps on the latest generation of computers and mobile devices. Apple's iPhone in particular has brought app into the public consciousness with its advertising slogan, "There's an app for that."

Junk lost out to nom and app in initial voting, and in the subsequent runoff, app emerged victorious. The nom supporters were none too pleased (cries of "Lame!" and "Weak sauce!" could be heard), but the people had spoken: app was the 2010 Word of the Year.

When I wasn't busy counting votes, I managed to record a few minutes of shaky video, capturing the nom vs. app showdown at the end of the meeting. Here it is, for your entertainment.

Update: For more on the selection, check out my interview with Voice of America here.

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Ben Zimmer 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:

Monday January 10th 2011, 9:20 AM
Comment by: Jon D. (King of Prussia, PA)
I'm disappointed that nom beat junk as Most Useful for a number of reasons (notwithstanding that as a word it doesn't really seem all that useful), but I would agree that notionally it's less depressing than what junk represents in our current state of affairs.

It's funny, I thought about "app" as a potential WOTY, but I muted myself in prior comments here because I figured since I'm closer to the tech world than most people, I had a bias around the importance and prominence of the terms in everyday language. I thought -- well, if only 1/4 of Americans have smart phones, then it really hasn't reached critical mass yet, right?

I mean, I love me some apps. And the term (yes, I have a hard time admitting it's a real word just yet!) is quite useful in dialect because it has both symbolic and contextual meaning, all while being fun and simple to say. (And, I'm so glad it won over its earlier contender -- "widget.")

So I'm glad "app" won over the the alternatives.

Nice work, ADS!
Monday January 10th 2011, 12:05 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
App gets my vote, though I don't have any kind of iPhone. App certainly has spread everywhere, both ironically with unspoken quotes around it, or straight as a short word for a new phenomenon.

Nom--where did that come from? I've never heard it. Is it the new "yum" or "yummy"? I've heard David Letterman say, "Num num" meaning "yum yum," but "nom," this is the first I've heard of it.

"Nom" seems to me to be on the word/sound borderline. Is "um" a word? Is "ow" a word? "Hmm"? "Oy"? These seem to me to be sounds with meaning but not quite words.
Thursday January 13th 2011, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Patricia E. (Santiago Chile)
Thursday January 13th 2011, 10:55 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Patricia: As I say in the above column, app is "the abbreviated form of '(computer) application' that has become so omnipresent in the past few years thanks to apps on the latest generation of computers and mobile devices." You can find some more information on the press release I linked to. Also, for the international audience, I've recorded an interview with Voice of America's Wordmaster show on app and some other words of the year -- the audio and transcript are here.
Thursday January 13th 2011, 7:33 PM
Comment by: MindMaster314 (Duluth, GA)
Nice! It makes sense that app is the WotY. Apple created apps on the Iphone 4 and the Ipad!

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The initial slate of candidates for the 2010 WOTY vote.
What's the Word of 2010?
Ben Zimmer's list of 30 notable words of the year.
"Tweet" was the 2009 winner.
"Bailout" was the choice for WOTY in 2008.