The educated general public tends to confuse linguistic evolution with everything from personal depravity to societal collapse. Tiny modifications and innovations in the language are greeted not just with a shrug but with actual fury. On Language Log it’s sometimes called word rage. The Word of the Year, chosen and publicized by the American Dialect Society, is a small effort at outreach to the wider world, aimed at reminding people that language evolves even between one year and the next, and it’s OK, it’s something to accept and enjoy. The choice for 2011 was made last Friday night at the 2012 meeting, in Portland, Ore.; the press release (PDF) is here.
The election procedure is informal, unscientific, and wide open to not just the entire membership of the ADS but also anyone else who walks into the ballroom at the right time and sits down. Allan Metcalf performs the master of ceremonies role with wit and aplomb. There must have been 300 people in the room. The vote counters made no attempt to distinguish members from interlopers: This was popular democracy with no prior definition of the demos.
I was there along with my son, Calvin, a video game developer who happens to live in Portland, for he and I had a word to promote. The mild offensiveness of our word makes it unsuitable for discussion in these august surroundings, but there is a Language Log post on it. We stormed to victory in the Most Outrageous Word subcategory. (The other categories were: Most Useful, Most Creative, Most Unnecessary, Most Euphemistic, Most Likely to Succeed, and Least Likely to Succeed.)
I argued hotly against nomination of phrases rather than words. Someone nominated keep warm because people had started using it instead of goodbye during a cold snap in Alaska; someone else nominated put a bird on it, a catchphrase from the Portland-mocking TV show Portlandia; the euphemistic sugar-coated Satan sandwich was nominated; and job creator (a Republican euphemism for “member of the top 1%") actually won Most Euphemistic Word of the Year. I think such expressions shouldn’t be permitted as candidates, because they are compositional: They can be understood via regular processes by anyone who understands the words that make them up. You don’t need to look up keep warm if you understand what warm means and you know how keep is used. The phrases of English can never be listed (there are indefinitely many). It is words, with their unpredictable meanings, that have to be listed in dictionaries.
Exceptionally even a word may wear its meaning on its sleeve. Most people find that as soon as they hear humblebrag they know immediately that it refers to the faux-modest admissions by celebrities that really serve as bragging rather than self-abasement. (I once heard an academic at a conference begin a question by saying, “You mentioned West African languages; I only know one West African language ... " —classic humblebrag, it served to say “I’m an expert.”) Humblebrag won overwhelmingly as Most Useful Word of 2011. But mostly words are inscrutable. What does kardash mean? It’s a unit of time equal to 72 days—the length of Kim Kardashian’s marriage. I loved that, but it ended as runner up to Most Creative Word. (The winner was a bit too clever, I thought: a Mellencamp is a woman who is now a bit too old to count as a “cougar"; the etymology is from the name of the largely forgotten singer John Cougar Mellencamp.)
Overall winner as Word of the Year, with twice as many votes as its nearest rival, was occupy. Rather disappointing, I thought: the Mitt Romney of the field of candidates. Just an ordinary and rather moderate verb, not a neologism. But its profile rose so much during the tent-city protests of 2011 that it seemed a true representative of the zeitgeist. It was unstoppable. New Words Committee Chair Ben Zimmer had predicted its win six weeks ago, and he was right.
You have just lived through the year of occupy. Happy New Year, and keep your eye out for the Word of the Year 2012. It is either out there already, picking up new resonance, or it is destined to be coined during the coming 355 days. A year from now, if you just make your way to the right ballroom in the ADS conference hotel in Boston, you can be a part of the fun and help to make the choice.