What Words of the Year can tell us

As the end of the year approaches, lexicographers and word nerds start to compile their Word of the Year (WOTY) lists.

The WOTY is usually selected to reflect the ethos of the year. Often they are words that have been around for years and are given a new lease of life. Sometimes words and phrases emerge that are not yet listed in any dictionary.

Last week, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the year 2011 was revealed to be Squeezed Middle. Unusually, it was announced in the UK and the US as the OED’s global WOTY.

The OED’s press release stated:

While squeezed middle is British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens while having the least with which to relieve it, the Word of the Year committee in the US felt it had good resonance in the US, as well. Susie Dent, spokesperson for Oxford Dictionaries, said: “The speed with which squeezed middle has taken root, and the likelihood of its endurance while anxieties deepen, made it a good global candidate for Word of the Year.”

Other words on the shortlist included:

  • Arab spring
  • Bunga bunga
  • Clicktivism
  • Crowdfunding
  • Fracking
  • Gamification
  • Occupy
  • The 99 percent
  • Tiger mother
  • Sifi  [An acronym: systemically important financial institution.  Rhymes with “jiffy”.]

‘Squeezed Middle’ attracted some debate, mainly as it seems to lack a precise definition.  You can hear an interview from Radio 4’s Today programme with the OED’s Susie Dent here. Time will tell if the phrase has the ‘legs’ to hang around long enough to be included in the dictionary.

In early November, Global Language Monitor announced its Top Words of 2011. GLM tracks trends in English language usage worldwide and has selected its Top Ten Words, Phrases and Names of the Year since 2000.  The top three words for 2011 were: occupy, deficit and fracking.

Later this month the American dictionary-publishing company Merriam-Webster Dictionary will reveal its Top Ten WOTY – something it has done since 2003.  Last year austerity topped the list, followed by pragmatic and moratorium. In 2008 the WOTY was bailout.

Interestingly, ebullient was ranked number eight on the list. As Merriam-Webster points out:

Although a number of words on this year’s list reflect a somber national mood, one notable exception is ebullient – “having or showing liveliness and enthusiasm” – which leaped to the top of the searches as the world watched the rescue of the Chilean miners.

The American Dialect Society has been announcing its WOTY since 1991.  It will reveal the winning word for 2011 in January. The last three WOTY were:

  • 2008: subprime
  • 2009: tweet
  • 2010: app.

The WOTY lists provide a fascinating snapshot of our concerns and culture. Whether they are old words with new meanings, or brand new words and phrases that capture a social phenomenon or a new piece of technology, the WOTY nominations prove that language is constantly on the move.

One of my favourite words from 2011 is ‘sodcasting’ which perfectly describes the rather selfish act of playing music from a mobile phone in public. The OED looked at it but it never made the final top 10. For my money this is a word that will last.







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