The American Dialect Society, which will announce its 20th annual Word of the Year on Jan. 5, found itself just one in a crowd of word obsessives this year as a formerly obscure venture went mainstream, or at least social media-stream. Words - everyone's texting and hashtagging them.
"I see a social-media effect in terms of interest in talking about word of the year," said Ben Zimmer, editor of the Visual Thesaurus and a leading WOTY guy, head of the Dialect Society's New Words committee (a supercommittee if ever there was one.)
"It's something that people latch on to. When you look at something like occupy as the front-runner, its success is its ability to be modulated, to fit in different environments. Twitter allows for it to spread quickly, boiling down a complex word or movement."
The fact that the name Occupy Wall Street was created before the movement itself (by Adbusters, a Canadian anti-consumerist magazine that bills itself as "culture jammers headquarters") shows the increasing power that words have in the culture, aided by potent social media tools, he said.
"Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?" Adbusters asked in July when it christened its #OWS baby.
Zimmer noted that occupy had "talismanic" power and spread to cities around the globe and even to Sesame Street. (It's the rare consensus choice for Word of the Year 2011 (#WOTY2011).)
"They put something out in the world and it worked," Zimmer said. "It was clear that the word occupy had started to develop in all these unforeseen directions. . . . The key to a successful new word or phrase is that adaptability to different environments."
(To wit: Philadelphia Phillies rightfielder Hunter Pence's wildly successful let's go eat - a.k.a. #letsgoeat - is defined in the Urban Dictionary as: "phrase used in celebration of a feat accomplished through unmatched awkward hustle. Should be said as the second half of a sentence, including what feat is being celebrated." As in, "Good game, let's go eat," its original context, or "Leggings, boots, and a sweater kind of morning. #letsgoeat," a recent tweet from @torribaby.)
And so, with adaptability and potency as linchpins, in no particular order - as Steve Jones likes to say on The X Factor, although nobody believes this, and it really means "in the order the people who control this show have decided holds the most dramatic possibilities" - here are the non-occupy words of 2011, as suggested by Dialect Society powerhouses Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, and David Barnhardt, and, naturally, the twitterverse at large:
Arab Spring: the precursor to Occupy Wall Street, the series of protests in the Arab world that recently led Time magazine to name "the protester" its person of the year.
Humblebrag: there was an epidemic of this on Facebook and Twitter and it may be a byproduct of the tiger mom syndrome, but this phenomenon refers to the brag disguised as self-deprecation, as in the recent message left by a friend: "Sorry I couldn't get back to you, we're so disorganized, I've been running around trying to find a postcard for (daughter) to send to her pen-pal in Senegal." (Note to self: You did not get your children pen pals in Senegal in second grade; maybe it's not too late now that they're almost in college.)
Twinkling: Zimmer says this is "a term for the wiggly hand signals that the Occupiers use to register approval or disapproval. Another method of communication is the people's mike or the human microphone, a system of amplifying a speech by having surrounding people repeat it line by line." The Occupy movement also popularized the concepts of the 99 percent and the one percenters, referring to the have-nots and the haves, with graphically modern precision.
Winning: This feels like ancient lexicography already, but, for a time, Charlie Sheen's wild misrepresentation of his reality was wildly popular. Friedman and Zimmer both noted President Obama's use of the word with his winning the future slogan, which Friedman described as "the budget initiative with the unfortunate acronym."
Massive: Ben Yagoda, the University of Delaware English professor who tracked Britishisms in his Not One-Off blog about their gaining traction in the United States, said massive was making inroads against huge, its overused-by-Anglophile-hipsters predecessor. Other words that had nice runs, he said, were bits (look it up yourself), ginger (for redheads), wanker , and a coffee, (as opposed to a cup of, or some, or just coffee.) He's looking for whinge - rhymes with singe and means to complain - to show some life this year.
On a related note, Barnhardt loves the many forms of Murdoch, which hit the culture after the phone-hacking scandal broke in the U.K. He writes, "the name Rupert Murdoch was imaginatively and aggressively promulgated, especially through suffixes attached to Murdoch, as in Murdochalypse, Murdochalyptic, Murdochgate, Murdochian, Murdochify, Murdochification, Murdochise, Murdochised, Murdochiser, Murdochism, Murdochize, Murdochization, Murdochized, Murdochland, Murdocrazy, Murdochcrazy, Murdochitis, Murdochist, Murdochite."
Tebowed, Tebowing: The Tim Tebow phenomenon - a man of faith finding a way (a Way?) to pull out football games in the clutch, followed by a one-knee homage to the Lord - seems forever enshrined in our sports vocabulary. The website tebowing.com defines it as: "To get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different."
To be Tebowed would be to have some inexplicable power take the game from you in the fourth quarter. In Philadelphia, there's a corollary word: to be Dawkinsed, when the beloved soul of your football team gets traded to the Denver Broncos and you can only watch from afar as he (Brian Dawkins) enjoys the miracle of the Tebow as a teammate.
Luxury rap: With main man Kanye West's epic "Ima gonna let you finish" still echoing in our ears, Yeezy came back this year with Watch the Throne, an acclaimed album with Jay-Z whose genre he christened luxury rap, a close cousin of the popular hashtag #firstworldproblems.
Kardash: Nancy Friedman is nominating this for "least likely to succeed." She traces it to comedian/singer "Weird Al" Yankovic who, after Kim Kardashian announced the end of her 72-day marriage, tweeted: "72 days is now an official unit of time known as a Kardash."
Nontraditional start: Friedman, who blogs under Fritinancy, says this is this year's "walking the Appalachian Trail" adultery euphemism. She traces it to Newt Gingrich's friend Karen Olson, who spoke about Gingrich and his third wife. "They're a great couple," she said, "that had a nontraditional start."
Planking: Friedman defines it as "the Internet fad of the year: lying face down in an incongruous position, having your photograph taken, and posting the photo on the Web. It inspired a raft of copycat pastimes, including owling, stocking, and catbearding."
All much less controversial than fracking.