language corner

And the Word of the Year Is…

Words that topped the lists
January 9, 2012

Lots of people and organizations have issued their “words of the year” lists. Whether some of the words they chose are “of the year” is a matter of style, not substance.

Truth be told, because each list is compiled for different reasons (and some of those are simply to garner attention), there are no greater lessons to be drawn from them, except that, as noted here, many of the words of the year do not survive much beyond the year in which they were singled out for notoriety. And we’re singling out only a few of the many lists.

As said in November, “There are essentially two ways to pick a ‘word of the year.’ One common approach is to select from words whose common usage reflects some quality of the year past. Expect to see ‘occupy,’ ‘winning,’ etc., on many selections this December. Another way involves actually using the dictionary. Is there a word that captures the character of 2011, regardless of its popularity or ubiquity?”, using the latter method, chose “tergiversate” as its top word of 2011. Pronounced TUR-ji-ver-sate, it does not roll trippingly off the tongue, and it’s a good bet many of you have never heard it or know what it means.’s definition is “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate” or “to turn renegade.” Applied to the events of the Arab Spring or the gyrations of the stock market or the Occupy Wall Street movement, it makes sense, though its definition fits many years as well. But “tergiversate” shows up in Nexis fewer than half a dozen times in the past year outside of references to’s choice. Hard to associate a year with a word that is hardly used.

Another way to pick a word of the year is through a popularity contest, as Merriam-Webster does. Its Top Ten list “reflects the interests and attitudes of visitors from around the world to and and is determined by the volume of user look-ups on those sites.” Its top word was “pragmatic,” and while it admits the word can’t be associated with any particular event or trend, the way “tergiversate” might be, it is “an admirable quality that people value in themselves and wish for in others, especially in their leaders and their policies.” Good luck with that.

The American Dialect Society was one that chose “occupy” as its WOTY. The society polled its language-loving membership for its word, and its selection carries a different weight than that of an audience just looking things up. The ADS says “the words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” That helps explains why the immediate runners-up were neologisms, new words or phrases that were coined in the year at issue. Those also-rans were:

• “FOMO,” an acronym for “Fear of Missing Out,” the anxiety that occurs when you turn off Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail;
• “99 percenters” (anyone need a definition?);

• “humblebrag,” a false humility, especially, the ADS says, “by celebrities on Twitter,” as in Kanye West’s tweet “I know this is not a very rapper thing to say but I haven’t bought a new car or piece of jewelry in about 2 years …”;

• “job creator,” the people in that top 1 percent who, the theory goes, have the power to fix unemployment.

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Let’s see. This is an election year, so we’re betting all of those words will still be popular at the end of the year. Except, perhaps, for FOMO. That Twitter thing won’t last.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.