3 Jan /12

Brave new vocabulary year

If words were to have their own popularity contest I suppose it would be word of the year or WOTY (in line with that American propensity for acronyms) established with the American Dialect Society in association with Merriam-Webster and the Global Language Monitor. The list is dictated by a number of arcane and obscure rules, but mostly by the number of tweets they generate.

But what better way to celebrate the vivacity of a language?

The multitude of media from iDevices (yup, that exists) to standard computers and pagers we use to communicate with one another serves to encourage linguistic creativity with varying results. Actress Drew Barrymore’s character in one of those feel-good summer movies put it best:

“I had this guy leave me a voice mail at work, and so I called him at home, and he emailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting.”

This year Barrymore wasn’t the only one with an unhappy ending. Tempest tossed 2011 has brought forth most particularly those terms of financial hardship and political unrest thus the plethora of rather pessimistic vocabulary such as “flash crash”, “moratorium”, “LIBOR”1, “Global Economic Meltdown”, “TARP”[2], “Arab Spring” (Long Syrian Winter, by extension) “squeezed middle”3 (voted WOTY by the Oxford dictionary – “sodcasting”4 my personal favorite not having made the cut) and “occupy” (Global Language Monitor). Interesting word “occupy” more so as English-speakers in the rest of Europe first became acquainted with the concept through the “indignados” of Spain when unemployed workers occupied the Puerta del Sol and where the belt-tightening has been felt most. This spilled over to generate “indignés” in France and later became the indignant (losing in righteousness along the way) in the British media.

American President Obama lost somewhat on the word front too when he described the Dems as taking a “shellacking” after Republican congressional wins in November. I always thought shellacking referred to polishing something, mostly furniture and floors. The press has been uncommonly well-behaved while still quoting the word in inverted commas – never a good sign.

It was less magnanimous when Obama barnstormed the heartland to boost US jobs in a luxury bus financed on the American taxpayer dime and custom built – in Canada. The faux-pas earned the Harvard-educated President the gleefully Noddy-like moniker by the NY Post of “Canucklehead”.

Surely though the mother of all lexicographical ineptness must be Alaskan hockey mom, Sarah Palin, spawning, along with much mirth, the now infamous “refudiate” (and comparing herself, with disastrous results, to Shakespeare along the way). On the upside, her general illiteracy, freefalling non-sequitors and nonsensical verbiage now have their own legitimate designation – Palinism.

Finding le mot juste hasn’t been a challenge in general for commentators describing the decade of travel restrictions and privations with which we have had to learn to live. Thus “enhanced pat down”, or better yet “gate rape” is the reward for finding oneself on the other side of the scanner sans shoes, sans socks, sans belt, jacket, bracelets, watch and worst of all sans phone to be pawed by some non-descript, comparatively-clad security officer.

Heathrow for a flight from London to Algeria, on one occasion, took the exercise to new existential lows when I was, in addition, asked if my travel document was authentic. Ah well. The good news is I’d venture there might be a (not-so-polite) word in Arabic for that.

In line with my 2012 resolutions though, that include being less uselessly scrappy and more usefully so (and to eat more veggies), I have decided that German is undoubtedly the unsung hero of our current existential angst (case in point) having given me my WOTY. Who else could have thought of the most delightfully a propos Kummerspeck – literally “grief bacon” – excess weight gain due to emotional overeating? So as I get myself back on the treadmill to undo Christmas damage, I have also resolved to studiously avoid Palinism in 2012. Don’t be a canucklehead! Read! Read! Read!

A very Happy New Year to you all.



1 LIBOR – The Libor rate is the average interest rate that leading banks in London charge when lending to other banks.

[2] TARP – Troubled asset relief program.

[3] Squeezed middle – the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those on low or middle incomes”.

[4] Sodcasting – an informal term for the practice of playing music through the loudspeaker of a mobile phone while in a public place