Inside the Search for 2012's Word of the Year

This article is from the archive of our partner . has announced bluster as its 2012 Word of the Year. As far as words of the year go, this is an OK if not too terribly innovative one (sorry, guys), combining patterns weather (Sandy) with patterns political (an election year). "'We liked the the double meaning of weather and communication,' Jay Schwartz,'s Head of Content, told The Huffington Post on the telephone from the company's headquarters in Oakland, CA."

We'll acknowledge that there was a time in early November when bluster was happening both weather and politics-wise. But right now, we don't feel very blustery. Can it really be word of the year, then? Thankfully, it's not your only Next Top Word option for 2012. Just last week, Oxford Dictionaries, the OED's hip-ish online arm, dubbed GIF its word of the year for America and omnishambles as the British word of the year. America (and the UK, and Castle) sort of freaked out—really, GIF? What is this, 1994? But truly, none of these words are really working for me as Words of the Year: GIF, regardless of the part-of-speech clarification made later by Oxford—they meant it as a verb, not a noun—seems very nearly past tense; omnishambles, while a great word, is decidedly British, and bluster, while perhaps we were weathering it in November, is not really a verb most people use at all. When we speak of words of the year, they should reflect our times, not just a weather pattern, no?

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Merriam-Webster does the Word of the Year a little differently, as a measure of vocabulary curiosity. Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski told us, "We're currently looking at the raw data from the year's worth of lookups at the online dictionary—over a billion pageviews—to get a picture of what the culture was thinking about according to what words sent them to the dictionary. Sometimes these words are from specific events or utterances, but the most looked-up words usually do reflect the zeitgeist (think of bailout in 2008 and austerity in 2010). We will look for words that have shown spikes of interest over the past year or years, and announce our results in early December."

Elsewhere on the Internet, the American Dialect Society is accepting nominations for Words of the Year (#woty). Linguist-about-the-Internet Ben Zimmer is chair of the New Words Committee for ADS, and as such, has "something of a vested interest in the whole Word of the Year business," he told The Atlantic Wire, giving us a brief history of the program, which he calls "the granddaddy of all the WOTYS." It started back in 1990, when "it was the only game in town," a way to generate publicity for the organization. He says, "Some selections have made more of a splash than others: the 2005 choice of the Colbert-ism truthiness got a little out of hand. For dictionary programs that have joined the WOTY bandwagon, it's also clearly a public-relations opportunity, one of the few surefire ways for a dictionary publisher to get some media attention. I was part of that marketing machine when I served as editor for American dictionaries for Oxford University Press and was responsible for the 2007 choice of locavore. (A New York Times piece that year went with the meta angle, reporting not so much on the word itself but on my efforts in publicizing the selection of it.)" A list of Zimmer's 2011 WOTY favorites is here.

Having a word of the year, though, is about more than just publicity. "Sometimes, as in the case of locavore, a WOTY nod can draw attention to an interesting new lexical formation that might be on the cusp of hitting mainstream acceptance. Even when a WOTY choice is not a brand-new creation, it can say something meaningful about developing trends in our language and culture. Sometimes, it's an old word used in novel ways, such as last year's ADS choice, occupy, which had been transmuted into an all-purpose verb, noun, and combining form by the Occupy movement," Zimmer says. Sometimes the nuances of parts of speech shifting (see GIF) are lost on the media—but that doesn't mean such semantic aspects are any less fascinating to people in the business of words. As Sokolowski told us, "I think the various 'words of the year' are all valuable. Most of them are chosen to represent the spirit of the times and how English is evolving as a reflection of that spirit. They give us perspective on language change. Language changes just fast enough that we notice, which is why many usages that seem new are precisely those that annoy us. But once the change is absorbed, there is no longer much controversy (think of verbs like finalize, contact, or access—all were highly criticized when they first became commonly used). Year's end is a good moment to take stock." 

As for this year's picks, Zimmer says, "I've already talked a bit about some likely contenders, such as YOLOfiscal cliffFrankenstormdouble down, and Gangnam style. (Yes, some of these are actually phrases, but that's OK.)," he says. "My current sentimental favorite is probably mansplaininga word that encapsulates a whole cultural commentary, like last year's humblebrag." Stay tuned for his complete list of ADS WOTY nominees in December on the Boston GlobeVisual Thesaurus, and A vote for the grand winner will happen on January 4 at ADS's annual meeting

In the meantime, we can all play along at home. It's a game that may come in particularly handy when struggling to make conversation with Great-Aunt Edna over the turkey tomorrow. We all have our own words of the year, right? Here are the words and phrases (lexical items included!) that meant a lot to me this year. 

Actually. Actually! Actually, I hate actually, but I sort of love actually, which means I have a love-hate relationship with actually, as so many of us do. As an expression it actually seems a bit rude, but it's also so enjoyable, and you find yourself saying it when you don't even intend to, for emphasis, just because it feels so good tripping off the tongue in that agressive-agressive way it can. "Do you need a napkin?" "Actually, I already have one (implied: you idiot!)." If it's the worst world on the planet (and many seem to agree), shouldn't it get a nod as word of the year? We think so.

Artisanal. I guess we can't dub it word of the year if we tried to kill it earlier this year. But maybe we can if it's a zombie word that, like hipster, simply refuses to die? Plus, all of our cubicles are totally artisanal now. So there's that.

Corgis. Because they are a dog. Because of all the hate email I got from people who thought I hated their dog (contrary to popular blogpinion, I don't really hate corgis, you guys, I just don't understand them). Because they manage to be not cute and cute at the same time. Because the Queen of England adores them. Because when you look at that word, do you see "cor-jeez," "cor-gees," or "cor-giss"? Because, seriously, what's so great about corgis?

Fiscal Cliff. It's not a real cliff, which makes it a metaphor. It's all in the news, of late. It does sound scary, cliff or not. You can also imagine "Fiscal Cliff" as the nickname of that otherwise nameless guy in the perpetual khaki pants who works in the finance department, and that's sort of fun. But we don't see this as word of the year any more, really, than bluster. It lacks, for lack of a better word, that all-encompassing resonant connection with English speakers that a word of the year should have. Plus, Cliff is a bit of a downer, and the expression isn't even new.

Irony. Irony, and anti-irony, is hot, served up in the pages of the New York Times, Hipster THAT! Whether you agree that the world needs more sarcasm and ennui and terrible gift-giving for laughs, or significantly less of it, it's hard to argue that irony isn't a conversation starter, at least, among certain academic subsets of the earnest; die-hard Alanis Morissette fans; and New York Times readers. And whom among us is not at least one of those? 

Literally. Because of Joe Biden. Because of Rob Lowe. Because word-nerds agree even as they disagree: The use of literally is technically acceptable as hyperbole, contrary to popular belief, and yet, you may be criticized for it, and that's just how the semantic world turns. Literally. We think.

Love Pentagon. Mostly because it's classier than Call of Booty.

Malarkey. Another Bidenism, because, friends, it's fun, you know, or at the very least, a bunch of stuff.

Moist. Word of the year, or word of the decade? Moist goes down in history as one of the most hated words of all time, now and forever, and that lends it a certain gravitas, no? We like it like we like our brownies.

Portmanteau. This thing we do with our words, it's come to our attention in particular this year. Skort, craptastic, spork, frenemy, gaydar, meme-ories, jeggings, feminazibrunch, and even motel, they're all portmanteaus, with fresh ones made daily at Ye Olde Portmanteau Shoppe, aka, the Internet. It's a grammatical meme, a grammeme. In 2012, everybody was portmanteauing.

Pragmatic. We're stealing this one from Merriam-Webster. It's the most frequently looked-up word on the dictionary site over the last four months, which means it has a pretty good chance of being the most looked-up word of the year. (Close on its heels is disposition.) It was WOTY last year for, receiving "an unprecedented number of user lookups throughout 2011" on the site. Sokolowski told me, "Some words become really commonly looked up and stay there—some words truly become background radiation by virtue of being consistent sources of vocabulary curiosity—so we may wish to measure those words that have increased year-on-year."

Très Brooklyn. More an expression than a word, this one was printed in the New York Times thanks to writer Julia Moskin, who heard it used among foodie-Parisians to designate their acceptance for hipster-style food trucks and the delicious vittles they contained. Others denied it as a thing, still others came to its defense, and so on and so forth, with the end result its ominous spread across the Internet, much like the overflowing Gowanus Canal. Oui.

Semi-colon. Punctuation was huge this year! Let's shout out not the overused exclamation point, but instead, that languid, mysterious grammatical beast, the one that comprises both comma and period. It seems to say something, this punctuation, this word, and so, we nominate it for candidacy in the word of the year set of contenders, even if it's a not a word at all. And yet, it is. Semi-colon, you slay us.

Underbrag. The humblebrag is so 2011, and the brag brag was never really in style, so the underbrag is our new brag. It's a new word. It's a zeitgeist. It's, oh God, ironic. As I wrote in August, "The irony of the underbrag is that it shouldn't BE a brag. It's a terrible brag, the un-brag, not really a brag at all—except for the fact that the underbragger is bragging about it and therefore changing the rules of bragging as we know them." I nominate this coinage of undercover bragging for the #woty—and not just because I made it up (that's a brag brag, for the record).

Whom. Because sometimes we want to look back and remember, and sometimes, no matter how we rush toward change, we simply must hold onto things for the future. We need you, whom. Hang in there. 

Zozzled. It means drunk, 1920s-style. YOLO?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.