Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

NOAD Word of the Year: "Hypermiling"

The leaves have fallen and there's a chill in the air, so that could mean only one thing: Word of the Year season is starting! This year, the New Oxford American Dictionary kicks things off with its annual choice: hypermiling, meaning "attempting to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one's car and one's driving techniques."

Hypermiling has been around since 2004, coined by Wayne Gerdes of cleanmpg.com. It got a boost this year thanks to the high gasoline prices over the summer, and a presidential campaign that featured arguments about how much fuel could be conserved by keeping one's tires properly inflated. Beyond maintaining tire pressure, driving the speed limit, and avoiding hills and stop-and-go traffic, the announcement from Oxford University Press lists some more eccentric methods of hypermiling:

  • driving without shoes (to increase the foot's sensitivity on the pedals)
  • parking so that you don't have to back up to exit the space
  • "ridge-riding" or driving with your tires lined up with the white line at the edge of the road to avoid driving through water-filled ruts in the road when it's raining

The announcement continues, "A growing number of Americans favor hypermiling as a sensible set of practices for all drivers who are concerned about their wallets, the environment, and fuel independence, not just for those on the fringe who are obsessed with increasing their MPG numbers."

In some respects the choice of hypermiling resembles last year's NOAD Word of the Year: locavore, referring to someone who endeavors to eat only locally produced foods. Both locavore and hypermiling illustrate how environmental concerns are making themselves felt at a very personal level: food choices in the case of locavore, and driving practices in the case of hypermiling.

Full disclosure: before coming over to the Visual Thesaurus, I was editor for American dictionaries at OUP, which meant I did the honors last year with the choice of locavore. The selection was made with other lexicographers such as Erin McKean, and you can see from Erin's '07 list on her Dictionary Evangelist blog that hypermiler was one of the words we considered. So it's nice to see hypermiling get its moment in the sun this time around.

We'll be seeing a few more WOTY selections in coming weeks, culminating in the granddaddy of them all, the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year, to be chosen at the group's annual meeting in San Francisco at the beginning of January. (Last year the winner was subprime.) What's your pick? Check out NOAD's list of runners-up for some more possibilities, like toxic debt, hockey mom, and our old friend staycation.

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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:

Tuesday November 11th 2008, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Hypermiling -- a relative with a hybrid tell of others with the same vehicle creating frustration for the car in front because of slow starts at traffic control situations and all the other techniques in the name of fuel saving that tend to slow travel .

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