From Newt to Tweet: 2 Decades of Words of the Years

As I mentioned in my last post, on January 5, 2012, in Portland, Ore., the American Dialect Society will choose the Word of the Year for 2011. Various others will already have chosen their own Words of the Year, but the American Dialect Society’s is the last word in more ways than one—and also the first, having begun the practice in 1990.

The chosen words don’t necessarily have lasting significance. Rather, they provide snapshots of the preoccupations of the years.

Nowadays everyone, it seems, has an “X of the Year,” but Time magazine was first with its Person (formerly Man) of the Year, and ADS was first with its Word of the Year. The decision makers for each “OTY” are completely different, but their choices over the past two decades have sometimes run curiously close.

The Bush family has been prominent in those connections. In 1990, when Time chose George H.W. Bush as Person of the Year, ADS chose bushlips, “insincere political rhetoric,” recalling the president’s declaration, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” In 2000, Bush the Younger interfaced with ADS when he was Time’s Person of the Year, elected to the presidency by means of the Word of the Year, chad. And again in 2004 President Bush was on Time’s cover, while ADS elected red state, blue state, purple state.

Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, had double success with OTY back in 1995. Not only was he Time’s Person of the Year, but his first name became a verb that became a Word of the Year: newt, “to make aggressive changes as a newcomer.” He’s no newcomer now, so if his present-day re-emergence as a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination inspires a revival of newt, it will surely take on a new meaning.

Aside from politics, the world of computing has been prominent among Words and Persons of the Year, as in the choices for 2010: app and Mark Zuckerberg.

Here is a snapshot album of ADS Words of the Year, along with Time’s Person of the Year, 1990-2010:


1990 ADS: bushlips. Time: President Bush the Elder.

1991 ADS: mother of all, meaning greatest, most impressive. It came from Saddam Hussein’s talk of “mother of all battles” at the start of the Persian Gulf War. Time: Ted Turner, media mogul.

1992 ADS: Not! expression of disagreement with one’s preceding statement. Time: Bill Clinton.

1993: ADS information superhighway, the Internet. Time: The Peacemakers: Mandela, De Klerk, Rabin, Arafat.

1994 ADS: (tie) cyber and morph (to change). Time: Pope John Paul II.

1995 ADS: (tie) World Wide Web and newt. Time: Newt Gingrich.

1996 ADS: mom, as in soccer mom. Time: David Ho, AIDS researcher.

1997 ADS: millennium bug. Time: Andy Grove, Intel CEO.

1998 ADS: e-. Time: Bill Clinton, Ken Starr.

1999 ADS: Y2K. Time: Jeff Bezos, founder of

2000 ADS: chad, scrap of paper punched from a voting card. Time: George W. Bush.

2001 ADS: 9/11. Time: Rudolph Giuliani.

2002 ADS: weapons of mass destruction, WMD. Time: The Whistleblowers (three women).

2003 ADS: metrosexual. Time: The American.

2004 ADS: red state, blue state, purple state. Time: George W. Bush.

2005 ADS: truthiness, popularized by Stephen Colbert. Time: Bono and Melinda and Bill Gates, the good Samaritans.

2006 ADS: plutoed, diminished or demoted, like the planet Pluto. Time: You, user of the Internet.

2007 ADS: subprime. Time: Vladimir Putin.

2008 ADS: bailout. Time: Barack Obama.

2009 ADS: tweet. Time: Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve chair.

2010 ADS: app. Time: Mark Zuckerberg.


The ADS album also has special pages for Words of the Decade:

1990-1999: web.

2000-2009: google.

And for:

Word of the 20th Century: ADS: jazz. Time, meanwhile, chose Albert Einstein.

Word of the Millennium: she, distinctive feminine pronoun introduced in the 12th century, replacing heo, derived from he.

But this time around there will be only the immediate past year to concentrate on. Rumor has it that the leading candidate for WOTY 2011 is … well, not newt. Not yet, anyhow.

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