Leave it to lexicographers to sneak a word like hypallage into a press release. The occasion is the Word of the Year from Webster's New World Dictionary (yes, it's Word of the Year season already). Webster's New World chose distracted driving as its Word of the Year for 2009, defined as "use of a cellphone or other portable electronic device while operating a motor vehicle." The press release notes that distracted driving features a "linguistic catch" that is "frequently seen in poetry": hypallage. Say what?

Hypallage (pronounced hy-PAL-uh-jee, rhyming with analogy) is a literary device that in its more general sense refers to the "reversal of the syntactic relation of two words," as the Visual Thesaurus defines it. The kind of hypallage on display in distracted driving also goes by the name of "transferred epithet": the adjective distracted properly modifies the noun driver, but it gets transferred to another noun, driving. The Webster's New World PR points out that drunk driving also exemplifies hypallage, and it no doubt serves as the model for the neologism distracted driving.

Even with the fancy rhetorical label, there's nothing too extraordinary about hypallage. We might think of drunk/distracted driving as a kind of easy shorthand for driving while drunk/distracted, where it's obvious that the driver (and not the driving) is being characterized as inattentive. It requires no poetic leap to understand it, and the same goes for other examples of hypallage mentioned in the Webster's New World press release: restless night, juvenile detention center, and careless remark. As Jan Freeman wrote last year in the Boston Globe, "We all use hypallage, whether or not we know its name."

Here are a few more amusing examples of hypallage collected by language watchers:

  • "I was at a meeting on Thursday that included a sandwich lunch. Mine was Italian Chicken, whose other ingredients were Italian pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, freshly-ground black pepper, and free-range mayonnaise. It was sad to think of those cute little mayonnaises, running around unconstrained and happy until it was time for them to join the rest of the ingredients in my sandwich." (Michael Quinion)

  • "On a flight yesterday, I ran into another example. A sign in the lavatory read: airsick bags. Gee, I hope not!" (Martha Barnette)

  • From the Dec. 1, 2007 Economist: "As British political scandals go, this one is not particularly juicy. No honours seem to have been sold, no politician's Parisian hotel bills picked up, no extramarital toes sucked." (Arnold Zwicky)

As in past years, we'll be keeping an eye on the Word of the Year sweepstakes, culminating in the most prestigious WOTY event held at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in January. (The ADS will also be anointing a Word of the Decade for 2000-2009.) For the record, here are the runners-up on the Webster's New World list:

  • cloud computing: computer operations in which documents and data are created, edited, and stored remotely on servers and accessed by the user via an Internet connection
  • wrap rage: the anger experienced as one struggles to open a seemingly impenetrable blister pack or heavy cardboard mailing box to get at the contents
  • netbook: a portable computer, smaller and lighter than a typical notebook, designed for operations performed via an Internet connection; see cloud computing
  • wallet biopsy: examination, before medical service is provided, of a patient's ability to pay, enabling the health care provider to decide whether free or discounted medical care is appropriate
  • go viral: to become extremely popular in a very short time; said of a website, blog entry, posted video, etc. on the Internet

What new (or newish) words or phrases attracted your attention this year? Let us know in the comments below!

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

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.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 5:40 AM
Comment by: Valerie R.
In a similar vein,a notice on the fire exit of a local store - "This door is alarmed".
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 6:38 AM
Comment by: Rob C. (Breda Netherlands)
The use of hypallage is indeed nice (and thanks to Webster's and you for handing me a shiny new word). But, if the good people at Webster's think 'distracted driving' is a word, shouldn't they be looking up the word 'word' in their very own dictionary?
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 7:51 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Rob: Webster's New World is really interested in lexical items (words or phrases that could appear in a dictionary). But as OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower pointed out on Slate, it's a lot easier to promote a "Word of the Year" than a "Lexical Item of the Year."
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Rob C. (Breda Netherlands)
Ben: Hmmm...you know what? The man's got a point. :-)

OK, that makes sense now. Thanks for the explanation.
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 9:37 AM
Comment by: Morse W. (Huntsville, AL)
The love the word "truthiness" that was coined by the writers of Comedy Central's Colbert Report. It found it terribly useful for discussion of the last U.S. administration's perception of reality.
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 2:37 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
I live in an apartment complex where a lot of people experience 'wrap rage.' We look for visiting toddlers who could probably extricate anything if asked and mutter about 'adult proof' containers.
Tuesday November 3rd 2009, 11:01 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
My favorite example is the non-drowsy allergy and cold medications.
Wednesday November 4th 2009, 8:19 AM
Comment by: Dan H. (New Richmond, WI)
Occasionally while reading government publications one will run across an otherwise empty page that is printed with: "Page Intentionally Blank". I always admire the self determination of those pages.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

The American Dialect Society wants to know your choice for the top word of the past decade.
Last year, Webster's New World picked "oversharing" as its Word of the Year.
New Oxford American Dictionary, meanwhile, went for "hypermiling."
The American Dialect Society selected "bailout" as WOTY for 2008.