Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year: "Admonish"

The latest selection for 2009 Word of the Year comes from the good people at Merriam-Webster. Unlike other dictionary publishers that anoint an annual word, Merriam-Webster bases its winner and runners-up on actual user lookups to its online dictionary and thesaurus. So instead of the novelties selected by its competitors (distracted driving from Webster's New World, unfriend from New Oxford American), Merriam-Webster's choice is an old word that worked its way into current events: admonish.

Last year Merriam-Webster used a similar selection process to arrive at a Word of the Year that summed up the financial turmoil of late 2008: bailout. Other top words for that year related to the presidential election: vet, socialism, maverick, and so forth. This time around the word that received the biggest burst of online lookups related to a more minor political event: the moment in President Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress in September when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted out, "You lie!"

Wilson's interruption wasn't exactly an act of admonishing, since that word (defined by the Visual Thesaurus as "warn strongly" or "take to task") usually implies a gentler, not so confrontational approach. Admonish made the news the following week when the House of Representatives voted on a resolution disapproving of Wilson's conduct. The resolution wasn't so strong as a rebuke or censure, so admonish fit the bill in many of the press descriptions.

The rest of Merriam-Webster's Top Ten can similarly be linked to news stories of the past year — except for one:

  • emaciated ("very thin especially from disease or hunger or cold"): from reports of Michael Jackson's condition at the time of his death
  • empathy ("understanding and entering into another's feelings"): from President Obama's remark that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor would bring a "quality of empathy" to the bench
  • furlough ("a temporary leave of absence, as from military duty"): from the unpaid furloughs that many employers gave to workers to weather the recession
  • inaugurate ("commence officially; open ceremoniously"): from the inauguration of President Obama in January
  • pandemic ("epidemic over a wide geographical area"): from news that swine flu had reached pandemic proportions
  • philanderer ("a man who enters into casual affairs with women"): from South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's notorious rendezvous with his Argentine lover
  • repose ("to lie at rest"): from the funeral ceremonies for Sen. Edward Kennedy, when his body lay in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
  • rogue ("a deceitful and unreliable scoundrel"): from the title of Sarah Palin's best-selling memoir, Going Rogue. (Merriam-Webster explains: "When used in the phrase 'going rogue,' the word is used as an adjective. The relevant adjectival sense is: resembling or suggesting a rogue elephant especially in being isolated, aberrant, dangerous, or uncontrollable.")

The one runner-up on Merriam-Webster's list without any identifiable news hook is nugatory, meaning "of no real value." Merriam-Webster's editor at large Peter Sokolowski wondered on Twitter, "why were people looking it up in such huge numbers?" I think the spike may have been largely due to an Aug. 17 column on Examiner.com by Sharalyn Hartwell entitled, "Top 10 nugatory things we say." (Hartwell even linked to Merriam-Webster's definition of the word.) On the day that her column appeared, nugatory topped Google Trends, indicating that it was the hot search term of the moment.

Hartwell's column, I should note, goes under the rubric "Generation Y Examiner." It's good to know that her fellow Gen Yers have an interest in learning new words that is far from nugatory!

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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.

The New Oxford American Dictionary selected "unfriend" as their word of the year.
Hyping Hypallage
Webster's New World selected "distracted driving" as the word (or phrase) of '09.
Last year, "bailout" took top honors in the American Dialect Society's WOTY vote.