Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Year in Words, 2012 Edition

It's that time again, the annual look back at the noteworthy words of the year. Were you worried about dangling over the fiscal cliff, or did you have more of a devil-may-care YOLO attitude? Were you more interested in mansplaining or hate-watching? Here's a roundup of words that's not just a bunch of malarkey.

I've compiled my list of Word of the Year candidates in advance of the American Dialect Society's WOTY selection. As chair of the society's New Words Committee, I'll be on hand when the ADS gathers for its annual conference in Boston in the first week of January. Last year's winner was occupy, which entered as a prohibitive frontrunner. There's no clear favorite this year, so it's anybody's guess which word will prevail.

As in past years, the general public is invited to submit nominations for the word or phrase that best characterizes the past year. The ADS is looking for new or newly popular terms that were prominently used in 2012 and reflect popular American discourse. Nominations can be sent to woty@americandialect.org, or you can post them on Twitter using the #woty12 hashtag. (More information here.)

Below, I've selected five words or phrases in each of six significant categories: presidential politics, economics, domestic news, international news, pop culture/lifestyle, and tech. My current favorite actually cuts across multiple categories, from politics to tech: double down. As I described in a September Word Routes column, this borrowing from blackjack has been applied to all sorts of high-risk behavior in the hopes of high-reward payoff. It can be used postively or negatively, but either way its prevalence this year speaks to American ideals of bold, decisive action and an unwillingness to back down in the face of challenges (even when a decision or policy seems misguided in retrospect).

You can read more about double down and other words of 2012 in my language column in the Boston Globe for this Sunday.

Presidential politics:

Eastwooding: At the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood's puzzling interrogation of an empty chair representing Obama immediately inspired a "photo fad" in the tradition of planking, owling, and Tebowing. On Twitter, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke posted an image of his colleague Thomas Burr pointing to an empty chair, and countless others quickly followed suit, using the #Eastwooding hashtag.

Etch A Sketch: This brand name haunted the Romney campaign after adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN in March, "I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." Democrats continued to use the Etch a Sketch metaphor against Romney, portraying him as a serial reinventor of his own policy positions.

malarkey: Joe Biden provided the most memorable word of the vice-presidential debate, calling Paul Ryan's rhetoric "a bunch of malarkey." Interest in this Irish-American term skyrocketed, ending up on Merriam-Webster's year-end list of most looked-up words.

self-deportation: Romney's immigration policy ended up hurting him with Latino voters, and many observers pinned the problem on one word: self-deportation. Romney used the term in the Republican primary debates ("people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here"), but he removed it from his campaign rhetoric for the general election. Still, self-deportation stayed with Romney, while Obama spoke optimistically of DREAMers (those helped along by the DREAM Act).

unskew: Some Republicans felt the presidential polls oversampled Democratic voters, leading to an effort to "unskew" the polls. Dean Chambers set up the Unskewed Polls website, projecting a Romney win. Even on election night, Karl Rove and other conservative commentators remained mistrustful of returns indicating an Obama victory.

Bonus: It was a good year for blends involving candidate names (Obamaloney, Obamageddon, Romnesia, Romney Hood, or combining the two names as Robama or Obamney).


arithmetic: At the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton skewered Romney's economic policy with a simple word: arithmetic. Portraying himself as "a country boy from Arkansas...a place where people still thought two and two was four," Clinton returned to the touchstone of arithmetic to argue that Romney's plans for debt reduction didn't add up.

fiscal cliff: Popularized by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in February, fiscal cliff became the watchword at the end of the year in negotiations between Obama and Congress over avoiding massive spending cuts and tax increases. The term has a long history, but it has become inescapable this year (even as pundits debate the accuracy of the metaphor).

47 percent: Last year, the Occupy movement popularized the "99 percent" and the "1 percent," but the surreptitious recording of Romney's notorious speech at a Boca Raton fundraiser made this the year of the "47 percent," as he called those who do not pay federal income tax and were therefore predisposed to vote for Obama. Others on the right called them moochers, takers, or lucky duckies. But the "47 percent" rhetoric ended up working in Obama's favor, as it was Romney who ended up with just about 47 percent of the vote.

muppet: In March, when Greg Smith wrote a much-discussed New York Times op-ed "Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs," he revealed that he had seen "five different managing directors refer to their own clients as 'muppets.'" "Muppetgate," as some called it, thrust this British usage of muppet to mean "someone easily duped" into the American consciousness.

voucherize: Voucher became a dirty word in discussions of Medicare reform, as Paul Ryan and other Republicans sought to distance themselves from the word. Seeking a rhetorical advantage, Democrats continued to argue that Republicans wanted to voucherize Medicare.

Domestic news:

frackademia: In the ongoing debate over drilling for natural gas by means of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," anti-fracking activists have sought to expose the financial ties of university scholars involved in pro-fracking research. Such research has been dubbed frackademia (conducted by frackademics).

Frankenstorm: The National Weather Service's Jim Cisco introduced Frankenstorm in a weather advisory for Hurricane Sandy, "an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements" that was apt for both the hybrid nature of the storm and its timing at Halloween. CNN and other news organizations discouraged the use of Frankenstorm as too playful for such a serious storm. After Sandy made landfall and was no longer categorized as a hurricane, superstorm emerged as the favored designation.

ganjapreneur: The easing of marijuana restrictions in Colorado and Washington has led to the rise of ganjapreneurs (also called potpreneurs), or entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit from legal marijuana.

legitimate rape: Republican Todd Akin can probably chalk up his loss in the Missouri Senate race to this ill-advised two-word phrase, which he used while claiming that pregnancy rarely resulted from rape of the "legitimate" variety. Beyond Missouri, the phrase served to focus Democratic activists on what they called the Republicans' "War on Women."

pink slime: This icky term for filler used in processed meat, coined a decade ago, was the subject of much controversy this year. Though meat producers would prefer the more euphemistic "lean finely textured beef," investigative journalists made news with pink slime, leading to a movement to remove the filler from meat sold in supermarkets and restaurants.

International news:

apology tour: When Obama visited foreign countries at the start of his first term in 2009, conservative opponents interpreted his statements about American foreign policy as overly apologetic. This year, Romney seized on the phrase apology tour (in both his convention speech and the debates) to paint Obama as "criticizing America."

Grexit: The possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone was dubbed Grexit (Greece + exit) in the international business world. It hasn't actually happened yet, but speculation continues. Similar blends were coined for other possible exits from the Eurozone, such as Brexit or Brixit for Great Britain and Fixit for Finland.

omnishambles: Selected as the Oxford Dictionaries UK Word of the Year, omnishambles, meaning "a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged," originated on the television comedy "The Thick Of It" before taking on a life of its own in British politics. The word also spawned many variations — most notable for Americans was Romneyshambles to describe Mitt Romney's gaffe-filled trip to the UK before the Olympics.

red line: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the United States to establish a "red line" with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Obama and Romney both agreed that there should be a "red line" past which Iran would be subject to attack. The term has historical resonance in Israel, and Netanyahu's usage seemed to supersede the earlier figure of speech of "the line in the sand."

Voldesport: The strict rules on trademarks involving the London Olympics led to this blend, originating in a tweet from the British bookstore chain Waterstones: "So, as we can't say the name of the big sporting event because we're not a sponsor, we shall call it Voldesport. It which cannot be named!" The allusion of course is to Voldemort, the nefarious "Harry Potter" character who must not be named.

Pop culture/lifestyle:

clown question: Back in June, the Washington Nationals' young star Bryce Harper was asked after a win over the Toronto Blue Jays if he'd celebrate with a beer. (He was only 19, but he could drink legally in Canada.) Harper, a devout Mormon, wasn't amused. "That's a clown question, bro," he responded dismissively, using clown in a peculiar adjectival fashion. "Clown question" quickly became an Internet meme, but things really got odd when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid borrowed the line in answering a reporter.

Gangnam style: The international pop hit "Gangnam Style" by the South Korean singer PSY was unavoidable in 2012, with an eccentric video that has been viewed on YouTube nearly a billion times. Gangnam style refers to Seoul's trendy Gangnam district, and the refrain "Oppan Gangnam style" ("Big brother is Gangnam style") was repeated worldwide despite the fact that it was indecipherable for non-Koreans. Gangnam style now is often associated with PSY's antics in the video, such as his humorous horse-trot dancing.

hate-watching: When New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote a column in April on "Hate-Watching Smash," she popularized a term for the masochistic practice of viewing a TV show despite (or because of) one's hatred for it. The variation hate/watch appeared on the fan forum Television Without Pity in 2005, but Misty Harris of Postmedia News observed that 2012 was the year when hate-watching was "defined and packaged as a pop phenomenon."

mansplaining: This term for condescending explanations that men feel obliged to give to women has been lurking online since 2008 (inspired by a Los Angeles Times essay by Rebecca Solnit), but it took off this year thanks in large part to its use for satirizing the explanations that male politicians such as Romney, Ryan, and Akin gave for women's issues.

YOLO: When I devoted a Boston Globe column to this acronym for "You Only Live Once" earlier this year, I wrote, "Every now and then, a bit of slang comes along that draws a bright red line between young and old. In 2012, that slang term is YOLO." Since then, older folks have come to know YOLO too, with Katie Couric making "What's Your YOLO?" a regular feature on her syndicated talk show. What might have seemed fresh and funny when the term was first popularized now seems like a stale excuse for bad behavior, reinterpreted by some as "You Obviously Lack Originality."


doxing: In the parlance of online forums, doxing or doxxing is the act of revealing personal information (name, addresses, phone numbers, etc.) about a pseudonymous person — from dox, short for "documents," referring to the publicly available records that can be dug up on someone. This type of outing or public shaming became more widely known after Gawker unmasked the identity of a notorious Reddit moderator.

MOOC: Coined in 2008 by Canadian education researcher Dave Cormier, MOOC stands for "massive open online course," a Web-based course that can be accessed by a large number of participants. This year, educational start-ups like Coursera and Udacity have capitalized on interest in MOOCs to enroll millions of students in free online classes.

phablet: Techies are grasping for names to describe electronic devices that lie somewhere between a smartphone and a tablet computer. The blend phablet (phone + tablet) has been suggested for such devices as the Samsung Galaxy Note, but it doesn't seem like this odd concoction has much hope of catching on. (Then again, that's what people thought about blog.)

replyallcalypse: When an NYU student replied to an email from the Bursar's Office, little did he know that he was also replying to the 40,000 students on the distribution list. When other students got into the "reply all" game, the ensuing email insanity was called replyallcalypse, affixing -calypse from apocalypse. Jen Doll of The Atlantic Wire sees this as a zeitgeisty word: "We all hate being replied all to; it unfailingly ends in chaos, large and small, and bad (but sometimes good, schadenfreude-esque) humor."

selfie: A self-portrait posted on Facebook or other social networking site has come to be known this year as a selfie. Selfies typically are taken with one's smartphone, often at odd angles and featuring odd facial expressions (such as the unfortunate duck face). Selfie truly hit mainstream approval when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the creators of the satirical "Texts from Hillary" blog by composing a text herself (or with help from young staffers), including the line "nice selfie." It was all part of a trend this year of politicians embracing the informal speech of social media.

(You can hear more of my thoughts on words of the year on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show.)

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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.