Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

What's the Word of 2010?

As 2010 winds down, word-watchers are reflecting on a year of vuvuzelas and robo-signers, gleeks and mama grizzlies. Let's take a look back at some of the lexical highlights from the past year.

I've put together a list of words in advance of the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year proceedings — the granddaddy of all WOTY selections. I'm on the Executive Council of the ADS, and we'll be gathering in Pittsburgh from January 6th to 8th for our annual conference. Though the conference promises to have many excellent papers on American dialects and languages, it's the WOTY vote that gets all the attention. Last year the word tweet was selected, and the year before that it was bailout. What will it be this time around?

The general public is invited to submit nominations for Word of the Year. What word or phrase best characterizes the past year? What expression captures the zeitgeist? The ADS is looking for new or newly popular terms that were prominently used in 2010 and reflect popular American discourse. Nominations can be sent to woty@americandialect.org.

Now, here are some of the words that crossed my radar in 2010. I've selected five words or phrases in each of six significant categories: politics, the economy, popular culture, the environment, technology, and — a topic of special interest this year — airport security.


Cablegate: When Wikileaks released 250,000 secret diplomatic cables, the resulting geopolitical scandal was almost immediately dubbed Cablegate. The -gate suffix gets thrown around quite freely, even for "scandals" that are hardly comparable to Watergate, but the fallout from the Wikileaks cables will no doubt be felt for a long time to come.

mama grizzly: Sarah Palin drew plenty of attention for using refudiate, her accidental mashup of refute and repudiate, which was even named Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. More interesting to me than that tempest in a teapot was an intentional coinage by Palin: mama grizzly, her term for fiercely conservative women who ran in the 2010 midterm elections. Introduced in a video in July, the term was a nod to Palin's love of the Alaskan wilderness and her penchant for animalistic metaphors.

man up: I wrote about this imperative exhorting responsibility in an On Language column in September, and a month later it began to make political waves when Nevada's Republican Senate candiate Sharron Angle (one of Palin's mama grizzlies) used it in a debate with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Some observers interpreted the slam as a challenge to Reid's masculinity.

shellacking: This colorful term was used by President Obama after the Democrats suffered heavy losses in the midterm elections, prompting much discussion about how this slang term came to mean a thorough defeat. I investigated the history of the expression here.

Slurpee: When Obama was on the campaign trail for midterm candidates, he described the economy as a car that the Democrats were trying to get out of a ditch. Republicans, he said, were "just standing there... sipping on a Slurpee." A Slurpee, in case you didn't know is a kind of slushie sold at 7-Eleven. After the election, a White House meeting between Obama and Republican congressional leaders was dubbed "the Slurpee summit" by Mark Knoller of CBS News (recalling Obama's "beer summit" of July 2009).

The Economy:

99er: Unemployment insurance benefits were extended to 99 weeks, but even that wasn't sufficient for some people who were out of work beyond that maximum time. The long-term unemployed were called 99ers, as Visual Thesaurus contributor Nancy Friedman discussed on her Fritinancy blog.

double-dip: If only this had something to do with ice cream cones — rather, it's a term for a recession characterized by a decline, a brief recovery, and then a further decline. Economists continue to argue over whether the U.S. is in the midst of a double-dip recession.

fat-finger error: In May, when the Dow Jones mysteriously dipped 1,000 points in the blink of an eye, the "flash crash" was initially blamed on a fat-finger error, possibly from a trader mistaking "million" for "billion." I talked about fat-finger compounds in the world of quants here.

foreclosure mill: Some shady firms, particularly in Florida, have been specializing in the speedy processing of foreclosures — too speedy to be legal, apparently. These foreclosure mills were the subject of much media scrutiny this year.

robo-signing: How do the foreclosures get processed so quickly? By having bank officials approve foreclosure agreements without actually looking at their contents, in a controversial practice that's been called robo-signing.

Pop Culture:

belieber: This is what a fanatical devotee of the pop singer Justin Bieber is called, blending Bieber and believer (a bit reminiscent of Twi-hard as a term for fans of the "Twilight" book and movie franchise).

gleek: Meanwhile, fanatical devotees of the TV show  "Glee" describe themselves as gleeks, which blends Glee and geek. As I discussed in a Word Routes column about the "Geek the Library" campaign, gleek is further evidence of how geek has become a positive term of endearment and and even pride. (Some might be familiar with an older meaning of gleek, having to do with squirting saliva through your teeth.)

GTL: The stars of MTV's reality show "Jersey Shore" use this as an abbreviation of their daily mantra: "gym, tan, laundry."

hit the slide: This ephemerally popular expression means "to quit dramatically," in the manner of JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater's famous exit in August. See my column at the time for further Slaterisms, most of which were quickly forgotten along with Slater himself after his 15 minutes of fame had passed.

vuvuzela: This noisemaker, which approximates the sound of a swarm of bees when used en masse, got international attention when crowds used it at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The valveless plastic trumpet probably had more foes than fans, given the racket it generated.

The Environment:

apocalypse fatigue: Dire news about climate change and other environmental concerns (see thermageddon below) led to apocalypse fatigue for those who tired of hearing about the doom and gloom.

fracking: This is another term for hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas from deep wells. The compelling 2010 documentary Gasland exposed the dangers of fracking.

spill: The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico went on for so long that the word spill eventually felt insufficient. Wendalyn Nichols suggested here that rupture might be more appropriate (and I suggested that rupture might also be a good term for the enormous "leaks" of Wikileaks). But spill continued to be the most common term for the Gulf accident — also generating new terms, like the spillcam that provided a live video feed from underwater.

static kill: After a series of failed attempts to stop the oil gushing from BP's busted oil well, which went by such fanciful names as top hat, top kill, and junk shot, the oil well was finally contained by a process known as static kill, pumping in heavy mud to seal the leak.

thermageddon: This is the imagined future date when the Earth becomes uninhabitable due to global warming — using the popular -geddon ending from armageddon.


data exhaust: As you go about clicking away in your digital life, all of your online activities are generating a trail that has been called your data exhaust, something that marketers are very interested in tracking so that they can display appropriate ads for you based on so-called "behavioral targeting."

hacktivism: The Wikileaks controversy (see Cablegate above) brought hacktivism (also spelled hactivism) to the fore: activism as performed by computer hackers. A similar blend, slacktivism (or slactivism), describes the lazy sort of activism that slackers can accomplish by signing online petitions or making social media updates.

supercut: This is a video montage, usually created by a fan of a film or television show, compiling a repetitive series of phrases or actions. The term has been around for a couple of years, but the Best Week Ever website recently made the case that it should get WOTY consideration.

thumbo: You've heard of the typo (short for typographical error), and maybe also the speako, its spoken equivalent. Now meet the thumbo, caused by errant texting. (See also fat-finger error above.)

trend: This word got a workout in 2010 as a verb meaning "to exhibit a burst of online buzz," thanks to Twitter's "trending topics" listing. Beliebers (see above) will be happy to know that Justin Bieber was the top trending star, though the Gulf oil spill and the FIFA World Cup led the overall list.

Airport Security:

backscatter: When the Transportation Security Administration began enforcing new security procedures, we all became familiar with a range of new terms, such as backscatter, the X-ray technology used by the TSA for full-body imaging.

enhanced pat-down: Those who refused the full-body imaging were subject to a new, more touchy-feely TSA frisking method. As I discussed here, the term is unfortunately reminiscent of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

freedom pat: Many sarcastic names emerged for the new pat-down procedure, such as freedom pat, a satirical euphemism (along the lines of freedom fries) that cropped up on the fake Twitter account TSAgov. Others that made the rounds on Twitter were freedom grope, freedom fondle, and freedom frisk.

junk: When John Tyner, a software programmer from San Diego, was faced with the new pat-down procedure, he captured the encounter on his mobile phone and posted it online. Tyner's threat to a TSA screener, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested," instantly went viral, with like-minded opponents of the security procedures rallying around the catchphrase, "Don't touch my junk." The slangy euphemism junk, referring to a man's private parts, became a topic of national discussion.

opt out: The act of refusing a full-body scan in favor of a full-body pat-down is known as opting out. Opting out became a form of civil disobedience by participants in "National Opt-Out Day" on the day before Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest day of the travel calendar.

Let us know your choice for Word of the Year in the comments below!

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

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.