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.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday January 9th 2010, 4:38 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
I’ll ask, again, hopping to get an answer: Are we going to have added, in the future, at least the two following categories? They are: a category for words nominated as THE MOST BEAUTIFUL SOUNDING WORDS and a category for words nominated as the BEST WORDS TO INSPIRE BEAUTIFUL THOUGHTS.
As for the word "fail" is one of the words I dislike most.
Saturday January 9th 2010, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
One more thought about the word “fail”:
Is it not strange to read that “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”?
Would the word “fail” been most useful, then one might have thought that the nomination of the word “fail” would have failed (for the sake of showing its usefulness for once and its truthfulness to itself and to its meaning). However, the nomination succeeded! The nomination was victorious!
And the word “victorious”, its antonym, was not even nominated!
My curiosity goes as far as to ask: what kind of reasoning lead to the nomination of this particular word, the word “fail”?
Saturday January 9th 2010, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
I can't see how adding "beautiful" or "likely to inspire beautiful thoughts" could work. Beauty is a purely subjective quality. Also, new words are generally coined to fill a need, a gap in the lexicon, not for aesthetics.
Saturday January 9th 2010, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Antonia: Well, fail did fail in the overall WOTY category, so it did ultimately fulfill its destiny.

As for my support for fail in its innovative forms (as interjection, noun, and even adjective), there's some justification in my column, " 'Fail' for the Win!" (and the New York Times Magazine column that it followed up on).
Saturday January 9th 2010, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Maybe I've already checked out, but "fail" simply fails to do it for me!
Saturday January 9th 2010, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I think my suggestions do better when I'm not there... Thanks, Ben! The sea kittens and hikers thank you.
Saturday January 9th 2010, 3:14 PM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Granite Bay, CA)
I just spent a few weeks with two daughters who taught me about "fail" as a verb - cracked us up. Good choice!
Saturday January 9th 2010, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Yep! I've totally missed it...like Valley Talk and Moon Unit. I'll just have to hang out with some younger people, I guess.
Saturday January 9th 2010, 9:22 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mark: As the Washington Post article mentions, "sea kittens" ended up becoming a running joke throughout the vote. It kept getting nominated in different categories-- Most Euphemistic, Most Unnecessary, Least Likely to Succeed... someone even shouted it out for Word of the Decade!
Sunday January 10th 2010, 12:56 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Thank you, Ben. I read both articles and, after reading them, I understood your nomination, of the word, as a description of its popularity online, rather than a word you favour.

To answer Karen D., I found some websites showing that people are interested in this matter (BEAUTIFUL SOUNDING WORDS and WORDS TO INSPIRE BEAUTIFUL THOUGHTS), as a survey was conducted (a British survey, which spanned 46 countries), with the result that the top ten most beautiful words in the English language were found to be: Mother, Passion, Smile, Love, Eternity, Fantastic, Destiny, Freedom, Liberty, Tranquillity:

For nice sounding words in different languages:

Alphadictionary is another site concerned with the beauty of words:

Why such words are useful? Well, in my view, and I dare think that’s not only mine, such words have the role not only of beautifying our speech, but also of directing our thoughts. And such words are most likely to be found in great books and not in “the Age of Trash Triumphant”, to use an expression I found on the very interesting site below:

Not being familiar with the very words used in these great books, inevitably leads to the avoidance of these great books with the result of having what we have these days, indeed aptly coined, Trash Triumphant.

http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Aest/AestRoef.htm “the verbal medium, the linguistic sign to the extent it correlates the signifier and the signified, i.e. sensuous presentation and meaning, corresponds most closely to the parity between sensuous embodiment and meaning which is the very characteristic of the aesthetic experience.”

Another interesting survey:

So, should not language, too, provide us with an aesthetic experience?
I cannot see why the American Dialect Society would not be willing to consider introducing the categories I’m talking about when it seems that so many people show their interest for them already.
Sunday January 10th 2010, 4:17 PM
Comment by: Tish (DE)
I think fail and words used by a select group should not be allowed for nomination but put in a different or new category,perhaps youth hip phrases?
For those of us who do not have a teen ager living with us, we are at a loss
If in the category "most useful," it simply does not meet the definition as if not familiar to a large part of the population, it cannot be most useful. My opinion!
Monday January 11th 2010, 4:11 PM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
But, Antonia: are those words really beautiful *as words*, or do we just love the things they stand for?

And Tish, I have no teenager living with me, but the words are still useful. Teens aren't the only ones who use them...
Monday January 11th 2010, 5:13 PM
Comment by: Peter R.
sorry, for me the word (and euphemism) of the year was "unwind"- by a mile
Monday January 11th 2010, 9:28 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I totally agree with Tish. The word should qualify only if used by 50% of the population!
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:24 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Part 1
Karen, I think that I have already answered to your question, when I gave (above) examples of websites talking about the beauty of words in both senses. Certainly some words might be beautiful because of their sounds and because of their meaning at the same time. Also, though, some words might have beautiful sounds, depending on their association with other words, they will have their beauty decreased or increased, or have the capability of enhancing the words they are associated with. We might take as an example “murmuring” and associate it with different words and see what happens in both senses:
“murmuring mills”, “murmuring murlins” , “murmuring murkiness”, “murmuring murals”, “murmuring moribund”, “murmuring murth”, “murmuring motility”. Could we say that one association is better than any other in both senses (sounds and meaning)? What would be your answer?
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:37 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Part 2
Karen, of course, at least in my view, one way of finding out that we like a word strictly because of the way it sounds, would be to listen to the words of a language we do not know, as the words would have no meaning for us. This idea came to me as I did a similar test, only it is not related to sounds, but to vision.
I have tested myself in relation to Chinese characters, a language I do not know. I picked up characters that seemed to me beautiful and then I looked for their meaning (I still have no idea how they sound). Below are three characters I’ve picked up as I found them very beautiful, and after finding their meaning (which you can see below) I have wondered (as the meanings do not seem to me negative in any way) whether we are born wired, so to speak, to express and recognize (at least visually, in my case, related to this test of mine with myself) something beautiful or at least positive (I could have picked characters I dislike most, but as an adept of positive psychology, I did not).

? {Verb} be in, deal with, dwell, handle, live, manage, position: be in a position of, reside, sentence, stay
{Noun} bureau, department, location, office, part, place, point, respect, spot

? {Verb} alter, change, correct, rectify, revise, right: put right, switch over, transform

? {AUX} measure word for sentences
{Noun} sentence

Needless to say that I would have loved to have been not the only participant in my Chinese characters test. Though I have studied psychology (and not only), as no one is willing to employ me as a psychologist, I can only hope that some employed psychologist might be willing to take my test further. I have also devised a test (as a student of psychology) related to the sounds of words (something of interest here), stating that one’s profession would influence the way one would hear a word (verbal transformation effect and phonemic restoration effect). The words were:
Shin- The front part of the leg below the knee and above the ankle.
Shim - A thin, often tapered piece of material, such as wood, stone, or metal, used to fill gaps, make something level, or adjust something to fit properly.

and the professions were medical doctor and architect (where I was saying that an architect would most likely hear shim when the word shin is uttered, and a medical doctor would most likely hear shin when the word shim is uttered). And though the tutor thought that such a test proposal would be a splendid research idea I should take further and develop during a PhD, the head of the subject failed me because the report had 3000 words instead of 1500 words, and no one dared to read beyond the word number 1500! (That’s another test I would love an employed psychologist to take further). And speaking of “fail”, I failed for understanding and knowing more, rather than less, and especially for having a thinking mind! I was living in “The Age of Trash Triumphant”, though I did not know it at the time. I had the realization after, when I saw that constantly those who were ignorant (in the real sense of the word) were promoted and those who were competent (in the real sense of the word) were discarded. That’s how the history is written (if you see the mark I had for the subject you’d think that I’m an idiot!). Shall we change the subject now and talk about history (of words, of course!)?
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:49 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 12:55 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
Karen, above I've posted the Chinese characters again, as I noticed that they have been transformed into question marks, and again they are shown as question marks. Would you be interested to see them I can email them to you, or anyone interested, for that matter.
Tuesday January 12th 2010, 7:34 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
To Antonia: isn't it lonely up there? As a thinking medical doc, I can relate to some of your anguish. Sometimes it seems as if there is no one to talk to.
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 12:17 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
To Roger: Undeniably we are social creatures. That is to say that though we might come up with a hypothesis and test it on ourselves only, we would still like to ask someone “What do you think about this idea?” (and everything can be seen as a hypothesis – imagine a child learning to walk; every step is a hypothesis related to the next step (say, that the hypothesis is saying that the child will maintain the balance), a hypothesis confirmed or not (the child will maintain the balance and be capable to make a new step, or lose the balance and fall); similarly, a child learning to talk, which is more in line with our subject, words: for example, I would talk to a child in the same manner I would talk to an adult expecting to notice a faster increase of child’s vocabulary. Generally we do not think about such actions as hypothesis confirmed or not, nevertheless they are. Human interactions can be seen as hypotheses (because expectation is part of these interactions): whatever we do (which can be seen as being similar to enunciating a hypothesis) we expect something, and when things go as we expected, the hypothesis is confirmed, and when they don’t the hypothesis is not confirmed). I certainly think that we like dialogues more than monologues (and that’s not something new, if we think about Plato’s dialogues). Of course, sometimes when a dialogue is not possible with the real people, we are daily in contact with, in an working environment, we can still find a solution to what we might see initially as a problem, after it occurred to us that we can read and put face to face different authors and have a splendid conversation with them all with the result of seeing new ideas emerging in a very creative manner, as on a given theme, different authors might have completely different views, and that’s exactly what makes us ponder, create juxtapositions, understand something that was not clearly understood before, give more weight to details which might have been seen as insignificant, certainly learning something new, and so on. Bringing different themes together is even more fascinating, as our mind, used to see patterns, would try to find some patterns within what at first sight might seem as having nothing in common, and which, after a thorough analysis, will show some common characteristics surfacing.
Certainly, from time to time we would try again to initiate a new dialogue with the hope of finding people with a similar mental makeup in order to share and exchange ideas (I might learn from Plato, disagree or agree with Plato, but Plato will not answer back to me, disagreeing or agreeing with a new thought I might have) and when such a thing happens we feel very much invigorated, as nothing is more enjoyable, at least in my view, than continuously enriching one’s mental life in as many ways as possible.
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 1:34 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
For anyone interested to see the Chinese characters I was talking about, I put them on my website
under Psychology
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 8:07 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks to Antonia D for your response. I enjoyed the piano music on your site. I too have a modest site: http://rdpmd.com/
The reality of things is this: so many people are simply not endowed with the ability to engage in what I find as "interesting" conversations. They are often too busy judging your own stupidity of things they have no knowledge!
Thursday January 14th 2010, 8:06 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
To Roger: I am glad that you liked the music, but how have you found the Chinese characters? Have you found them beautiful or not? Or neither? I would like as many people as possible to tell me what they think about them.
I clicked on the website you posted as I was hoping to read some medical papers. But the website http://rdpmd.com/ is the address of Blogger Home, where I was asked to sign in to access my own account. So I suppose you left something out when you typed it. Consequently I could not visit your site.
Thursday January 14th 2010, 5:58 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
The Chinese characters did nothing for me. Sorry, nothing but abstract symbols for concepts unknown to me.
Re. my site; you have to select the blog title, "Cognitive Matrix"

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