Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Tweet" Named Word of the Year, "Google" Word of the Decade

After much good-natured debate at its annual meeting in Baltimore, the American Dialect Society has made its selections for Word of the Year and Word of the Decade. As proof that we're truly living in a digital age, the winner of Word of the Year for 2009 was tweet ("to post an update on Twitter") and the Word of the Decade for 2000-09 was google (the generic verb meaning "to use Google or another search engine").

On Thursday evening, ADS members gathered for a nominating session for the various subcategories of Word of the Year, as well as for the overall Word of the Year and Word of the Decade. After another day of fascinating paper presentations on American languages and dialects, we reconvened on Friday evening for the big WOTY-fest. As usual, it was a standing-room-only affair in the meeting room for the vote, with ADS members joined by attendees at the concurrent meeting of the Linguistics Society of America, as well as interested members of the public (including a friend of the Visual Thesaurus, longtime Baltimore Sun copy editing chief John E. McIntyre, who blogged about the experience here).

The first category voted on was Most Useful, and I'm happy to say that my nominee fail (used as a noun or interjection) emerged victorious, beating out the suffix -er (as in birther and deather), the prefix un- (as in unfollow or unfriend), and Sarah Palin's favorite word, rogue. (As the kids say, fail for the win!)

We then moved on to Most Creative, and the winner by a big margin was Dracula sneeze, defined as "covering one's mouth with the crook of one's elbow when sneezing, seen as similar to popular portrayals of the vampire Dracula, in which he hides the lower half of his face with a cape." Other nominees like botax (the proposed tax on cosmetic surgery) and bragabond (a person who travels a lot and brags about it a lot) didn't stand a chance.

As predicted in this space, hiking the Appalachian trail (Gov. Sanford's notorious alibi) was the runaway winner in the Most Euphemistic category. That was a nominee championed by our own Evasive Maneuvers columnist Mark Peters, who also nominated last year's winner in the category (scooping technician). Even though he wasn't able to attend and had me submit nominations on his behalf, Mark scored an impressive twofer. Another of his nominees for Most Euphemistic got moved over to the Most Unnecessary category and finished on top: sea kittens, the new name for fish dreamed up by PETA.

In the Most Outrageous category, Sarah Palin's memorable turn of phrase death panel won the day. And for Most Likely to Succeed, the winner was twenty-ten as a pronunciation of the year 2010, as opposed to saying two thousand (and) ten. It was suggested that this was really a vote for twenty- as a prefix for the names of years all the way until 2099. In the category of Least Likely to Succeed, the winning selection was also of the calendrical variety: Naughties, Aughties, and all the other failed names for the decade that just finished.

Finally it was time for the main events. First up, Word of the Year. A nomination came from the floor for tweet, the verb of the Twitterati. Soon there was a groundswell of support for the word, and it ended up triumphing over the previously nominated words, including fail (sniff), H1N1, public option, and the -er suffix. Then it was on to Word of the Decade, and the verb google took the crown, beating out blog, 9/11, green, the war on terror, and other nominees.

Reactions to the vote are already coming in. On the American Dialect Society mailing list, John Baker pointed out that both tweet and google are proprietary names. Google is obviously a trademark of the powers-that-be at the Googleplex (who are no doubt unhappy about the dilution of the brand name by having it treated as a generic verb). But tweet is also a service mark owned by Twitter, filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on April 16, 2009 and pending registration.

The vote is getting a fair amount of press attention too. There's an early report in the Washington Post that captures some of the convivial spirit at the WOTY vote. The online version is accompanied by a short video with ADS members talking about their favorite words of the year — you'll see me in there, lobbying for fail.


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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.