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Words That Worked in 2008 (and Some That Didn't): A Report Card

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It's easy to bemoan the state of the English language today. But the fact is, words still matter. Arguably, more than ever. It's hard to think of a year filled with so many iconic words as 2008. The following is a list of words used to great -- or not so great -- effect this past year. Language by its very nature is always evolving, and 2008 imbued these words with different meanings than they had in 2007. Those who saw those new meanings emerged ahead. The following is our admittedly subjective ranking of the top ten words of 2008 and how well people used them.

#1 Change:
There are few arenas in which as many words fly as in a U.S. presidential election. And this year, "change" was by far the big winner. It was the perfect word for unsettled times. A word that previously suggested uncertainty today conveys a move toward stability. By September, both candidates tried to use it to their advantage. But as in any debate, victory almost always goes to the person first able to define the terms. And the Obama campaign's incredibly disciplined use of this one word inspired millions of new voters to head to the polls -- and carried him to the presidency of the United States. Final assessment: right word, right time. Grade: A

#2 Maverick:

In 2007, a maverick was a rebel who played by his own rules. In 2008, a maverick was a 70-year-old Republican senator with a voting record in almost perfect lockstep with the administration's. Was it a good word for the McCain camp? Probably. However, while he used to have a legitimate claim to this powerful word, Americans simply didn't find it credible in 2008. And when Saturday Night Live latches onto your word, it's generally a sign it's not working for you. Final assessment: right idea, wrong candidate. Grade: B

#3 Experience:
This word got tossed around a lot during the presidential campaign. First Clinton. Then McCain. Then he didn't. Regardless of who was using it, this election showed the word had less importance this year than it used to. Extremely experienced people -- be they legislators, regulators or stockbrokers -- brought us to where we are today. Final assessment: right word, wrong time. Grade: C

#4 Surge:
In the beginning of the year, "surge" represented a counterintuitive plan to pour more gas on the fire that people viewed Iraq. But it was a canny use of language designed to suggest the mission's temporary nature combined with an image of overwhelming military power. The Bush administration's commitment to the word -- combined of course with the operation's immediate-term success -- turned it the word from a much maligned negative to positive. It now stands for a successful effort in a seemingly doomed war. Final assessment: right word, as long as it worked. Grade: A

#5 Bailout:
This may be the worst word of 2008. Congress, the media and America have been using the term continuously to talk about proposed solutions to the current financial crisis. The problem is obvious: "bailout" connotes charity. No one wants to help the fallen titans of Wall Street or reward U.S. automakers for their perceived ineptitude. But the rationale behind this support is not about charity. They can alternately be viewed as self-help. When they fail, everyone fails. The fact that proponents of these measures have adopted the "bailout" terminology has probably done more damage to their cause than anything else. Final assessment: wrong word for everyone except Herbert Hoover wannabes. Grade: F

#6 PC:
This was the year Microsoft began to take back the PC. The extremely effective Mac vs. PC ad campaign has been running since 2006, redefining the very meaning of the word "PC." It had come to mean unsecure and unreliable. Microsoft's recent "I'm a PC" ad campaign is a great example of a brand reclaiming -- and redefining -- a word. With the help of hundreds of ordinary people and celebrities from Tony Parker to Deepak Chopra, Microsoft is poised to successfully re-repurpose PC to mean useful and familiar. Final assessment: a word in progress. Grade: B

#7 The Volt:
The Chevy Volt, to be precise. The word effectively reflects what it describes - Chevrolet's in-development emissions-free electric car. Its ubiquitous use during the debate over federal assistance for the auto industry has turned it from a small scale and limited research project into the future of Detroit ingenuity. While the Volt represents only a small investment in Chevrolet's overall strategy and many experts say it's nowhere near ready, the way Chevy executives talk about it has turned it into a powerful, successful word. Final assessment: the emperor has few clothes, but has been used to good effect. Grade: B

#8 Drill:
The McCain campaign took what used to be a dirty word -- and still is for many -- and tried to reposition it as a home-grown energy production solution. No matter that virtually every expert pointed out that expanded domestic oil drilling today would have no impact whatsoever on the high price of gas and wouldn't even yield any results for another ten years. The use of the word to address the nation's security concerns combined with people's frustration over the exceedingly high price of gas was interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful. Final assessment: an artful bluff that was ultimately called. Grade: C

#9 Subprime:
A great example of if you repeat something often enough -- even something nobody understands -- it will join the national lexicon. More importantly, this is our bet for the new "Enron." It has become the new shorthand for the economic mismanagement of our age. Final assessment: Ken Lay will be able to rest more peacefully. Grade: B

#10 Sorry:
Unlike the other nine, this word is one we have not been hearing this year. And it's been obvious. As more and more stories emerge regarding the mismanagement and poor judgment that have resulted in our current economic malaise, it's time for those involved to step up to the table and take responsibility. Far from showing weakness, the impact will be to increase their hugely damaged credibility. The grade is based on how few people have used this word. Perhaps it will go up on 2009's list. Final assessment: is there any accountability in this country? Grade: F