Word of the Year? Obamacare!


Image courtesy of Lit Reactor

As the year descends into the dark days ahead, it’s not too early to take a first look back at the language we have used in 2013 in order to find a Word of the Year.

That’s the designation, not always an honor, applied to a word or phrase selected from the verbiage of the year by the American Dialect Society.

The ADS WOTY, as we like to acronym it, is the Oscar of new-word choices, the one that matters most. That’s because it’s the alpha and omega—the first of the annual designations of Words of the Year, begun way back in 1990, and the last to be chosen and announced each year. ADS waits till the year is completely over, while others announce theirs in the waning months of the current year.

Furthermore, the ADS WOTY is chosen by people who know language. We make the choice early in the new year at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society with the Linguistic Society of America.

There it gets a double filter. First there’s an open meeting of the ADS Committee on New Words to choose a slate of nominees, not just for the WOTY but also for words of the year in half a dozen categories: Most Useful, Most Unnecessary, Most Likely to Succeed, and so on. The next night, at an open meeting, more than 200 linguists gather to vote on WOTY, linguists who for the most part have paid close attention to the language we use and who enter into spirited debate about the choices. Anyone can attend this meeting too.

That’s how it will happen in January 2014 when the two societies meet in Minneapolis. The nominations are Thursday night, January 2, with the final vote Friday night, January 3. You can get more information at the ADS Web site here.

Now I’ve just said that one reason the ADS WOTY is the Oscar of WOTYs is that we wait till the year is completely over, to be able to consider last-minute words like “tsunami,” which became suddenly prominent in the last week of 2004. (It didn’t win, though; that was the year for “red state,” “blue state,” “purple state.”) So nobody can be certain of this year’s winner yet. But the leading candidate by far at the moment, I think, is “Obamacare.”

It’s a well-formed word, based ultimately on the model of “medicare.” Prefixing “-care” with the name of the political figure who advocates it began long before President Obama came on the scene. Back in 1994 both “Clintoncare” and “Hillarycare” were used for the Clintons’ unsuccessful health-insurance proposal, and more recently the Massachusetts health-insurance law of 2006 has been called “Romneycare.”

“Obamacare” has been with us as far back as 2007, even before Candidate Obama had a proposal. What makes it particularly pertinent in 2013 is not only that it’s the focus of the current government-financing and debit-limit standoff, but that the very name “Obamacare” has a significant political effect. According to a recent survey commissioned by Bloomberg Businessweek, Internet chatter about the Affordable Healthcare Act was two-to-one positive, but about Obamacare only 56 percent positive.

President Obama himself said last month: “Once it’s working really well, I guarantee you they [Republicans] will not call it Obamacare.”

I can’t think of any word more significant this year. It’s right up there with “Y2K,” the worrisome Word of the Year 1999, and “9/11,” the unquestionable choice in 2001.

Nevertheless, I have a different favorite for WOTY 2013, a sentimental favorite that I’ll tell about next time.

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