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Michael Sigman

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Occupy!: Does Diction Reflect Conviction?

Posted: 01/29/2012 9:58 am

Occupy! -- the 2011 Word of the Year according to the American Dialect Society -- confirms Ralph Waldo Emerson's insight that "Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words." Language maven Ben Zimmer, who chaired the organization's selection committee, said it was "remarkable how the word itself contributed to the movement's success."

I've been tracking the rise and fall of words since grade school, when presidential candidates JFK (my hero) and Richard Nixon went to the mat over the fate of Quemoy and Matsu, two obscure islands on the other side of the globe. For a few weeks, these strange names seemed critical to the future of our planet. After the election, the words vanished from public consciousness, and the islands could have sunk into the Taiwan Strait without much fanfare.

The importance of Occupy! as a signifier of serious activism was underscored by two ADS runners up: The 99 percent(ers), "those held to be at a financial or political disadvantage to the top moneymakers, the one-percenters; and job creator, which the Society defined as "a member of the top one-percent of moneymakers." (Actually job creator is a bogus Republican talking point, which may explain why it also took the prize as Most Euphemistic.)

In 2010, by contrast, app was the Society's "word that best sums up the country's preoccupation." Given some of that year's other top contenders, our quest for a "Don't worry, be 'appy" outlook was aided by such paeans to frivolity as Cookie Monster's nom, nom, nom, nom, junk (as in "don't touch my junk") and trend (as in "burst of online buzz").

Other austere bodies were all over the map with their 2011 winners. Dictionary.com captured Romneyism, perhaps unintentionally, with tergiversate -- "to change repeatedly one's opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate." Webster's chose pragmatic, a bit of a puzzler given the polarization of public discourse. "Squeezed middle," the Oxford University Press Global Word of the Year in both the U.S. and the U.K., could, if it didn't sound so awkward, serve as an Obama campaign slogan.

Did Americans sober up in 2011, or do we simply prefer to alternate between heaviosity and levity? The Dialect Society's 2008 Word of the Year, bailout, gave way the next year to Tweet. Earlier in the decade, weapons of mass destruction was followed by metrosexual, subprime was preceded by plutoed and red state/blue state/purple state displaced truthiness.

It's wonderful that Occupy! has evolved into a political and cultural catalyst, but other words are best left to themselves. Space was happily engaged with outer until -- long before Myspace -- the first hippie said, "I'm going back to 'my space'" instead of "my apartment." The new book 10 Commandments of International Business references "companies that were in our 'space' before we dedicated resources to going toe-to-toe with them," reflecting the tendency of execs and consultants to use space wherever words like field, business, category, or industry would do.

And oh, for the halcyon days when robust conjured the pleasures of a mug of full-bodied coffee. Beginning perhaps when the U.S. was bogged down in the Balkans during the 1990s, the word has wandered too far and too wide. David Steensma wrote in Blood (the Journal, not the bodily fluid) that "the number of biomedical articles published annually with the word 'robust' in title or abstract has increased 40-fold since 1982," while our punditocracy chronicles the quest for a "more robust manufacturing sector." (One blogger named robust his Word of the Year, but only because of its ubiquity.)

"Not every newly coined word becomes widely used or even enters the language," says Don Hauptman, a New York-based writer on language and wordplay. Linguists call such invented and ephemeral creations "nonce words." They're used only once, fail to catch on, and disappear. Examples include dentiloquent, meaning "talking through one's teeth," and rixation, coined in 1623, which meant scolding. But Don points out a paradox: "Doesn't the very act of citing nonce words automatically disqualify them as nonce words?"

Some words have staying power that spans the centuries. Such recent nonces as bushlips, w00t and Not! have had their season in the sun. But jazz, the ADC's Word of the Century, has kept its cool. (As has cool, which came in third, right after DNA.) The Word of the Millennium, She, -- first cited in the 12th Century -- has been a keeper, to say the least.

Will this year's winner be political (battleground states), funny (lunar colony) apocalyptic (baktun [Mayan apocalypse]) or none of the above? To answer that, we'll give the late, great Bob Marley the last word.

 

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