Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Get Your Shovels Ready!

The countdown is on for the American Dialect Society's selection for 2008 Word of the Year, the oldest and most prestigious WOTY event in the land. The ADS selection will happen Friday, January 9, at the group's annual meeting, held this year in San Francisco. The voting is open to the public, so Visual Thesaurus readers in the Bay area are welcome to drop in for the WOTY fun. I'll be attending (I'm on the ADS Executive Council), and I have a few favorites I'll be lobbying for. One of them is a word that offers a ray of light in our current moment of economic doom and gloom: shovel-ready.

The American Dialect Society website has all the details on the WOTY selection. You can submit last-minute suggestions, or peruse words that have been nominated so far, both from members of the public and from ADS-ers like me. In the nominations from the public, the Obama-esque change is currently in the lead. Some of the other popular nominees will be familiar to VT readers, from bailout to meh. Political and financial terms have dominated the nominees so far, and I've had the opportunity to discuss many of these words on two recent National Public Radio call-in shows: "Radio Times" from WHYY-Philadelphia (audio here) and "At Issue with Ben Merens" from Wisconsin Public Radio (audio here).

As I mentioned in the radio interviews, shovel-ready is one word I'll be rooting for. These days it's easy to get caught up in the depressing vocabulary of toxic debt and market meltdowns, but shovel-ready looks toward the light at the end of the tunnel. It's a term used to describe infrastructure projects that can be started quickly when Obama's economic stimulus package is enacted. The stimulus package is the first item of legislation that the Obama administration will be working with Congress to pass, and it is expected to include tens of billions of dollars in projects to build schools, bridges, water systems, and so forth. Shovel-ready projects, those that are already fully designed and have all the necessary permits for construction, will be prioritized in the legislation.

The term has been floating around since at least the mid-1990s, usually in the context of state funding for construction projects. But it really took off after November's presidential election, when plans for the stimulus package started to take shape. Now state officials from Connecticut to Colorado are touting how many shovel-ready projects they have that would be eligible for those precious new stimulus dollars. Critics are skeptical of exactly how all of this federal largesse will be doled out, but however the money is spent we will no doubt be hearing about shovel-readiness quite a lot in the coming year.

Shovel-ready is modeled on other compound adjectives that combine a noun plus ready. Combat-ready troops are prepared to face combat. Oven-ready food can go straight in the oven. Camera-ready documents are set to be photographed. And these days you'll see televisions that are advertised as cable-ready or HD-ready, equipped to handle cable or high-definition signals without any extra equipment. So shovel-ready fits this pattern, evoking images of construction workers eager to sink their shovels into the dirt at the site of a new infrastructure project.

I don't know if shovel-ready stands much of a chance against such frontrunners as bailout, change, and maverick. Fortunately, though, the ADS has many other categories beyond the big prize of Word of the Year: there's also "most useful," "most creative," "most unnecessary," "most outrageous," "most euphemistic," "most likely to succeed," and "least likely to succeed." So maybe shovel-ready can win a category like "most useful" or "most likely to succeed." Stay tuned for the results!

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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.

An inside look at the voting for the 2007 ADS Word of the Year.
A word for Too Much Information was named Word of the Year by Webster's New World.
On the Trail of "Bailing Out"
"Bailout" is a WOTY frontrunner, though it dates back to the Great Depression.