If someone tells you, “You’ve been plutoed,” what will you take that to mean? Well, plutoed was the “word of the year” for 2006. In that year, the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto could no longer be regarded as the ninth planet in the solar system, as it did not meet the union’s definition of a planet. So the word came to mean demoted, derecognized, downgraded. Though “pluto” in Latin means wealth, it is no fun to be plutoed.
January is the time when we look back at the year that is gone by. Even as we ring out the old, we recall people and events that made the year memorable. Before the year was out, Time magazine picked the Person of the Year, Vladimir Putin. The search continues for sportsman of the year, movie of the year, and actor of the year. Many of these are glamorous and celebratory events sponsored by the media, with decisions often taken by SMS poll.
In the penumbra of this limelight, there are scholars, grammarians, professors, journalists and researchers who soberly deliberate on words that were created or were in wide currency during the past year. Leading among these groups stands the American Dialect Society (ADS) which, on 4 January, selected words of the year 2007 under different categories.
“Subprime” was voted word of the year, defined in a press release as “a risky or less than ideal loan, mortgage, or investment.” This definition can hardly reveal the magnitude of the crisis: Media headlines called it the subprime tsunami. It rocked the world economy furiously, and the aftershocks continue to cause havoc in the bourses.
A few more words were nominated under the category of real estate/mortgage/loan. The acronym ARM was coined to represent adjustable rate mortgage; NINJA stands for “No Income, No Job or Assets,” and means a loan to a high-risk borrower without proper documentation. Close on the heels of subprime were the words “green”, “facebook” and “googleganger”.
Facebook is the name of an enormously successful social networking website, launched in 2004 for students of Harvard College. Today, it has 60 million active users, not restricted to Harvard.
“Googleganger” has an interesting meaning and an interesting etymology: It is formed on the model of German “doppelganger”, “a ghostly double of a living person”. By extension, a person who shares your name and shows up when you do a google search on your name is your googleganger.
At the ADS meeting, there were many who wanted to select “green” as the word of the year. It is a word with a positive connotation, designating a concern for the environment. It lost to subprime, but it was the winner in the “most useful” category.
A word of the year can be defined as a word that truly represents the zeitgeist or spirit of the year. It need not be a new coinage, but must have been prominent in the news during the past year. By this token, Y2K seems an appropriate choice for 1999, and 9/11 for 2001.
Not content with year-by-year decisions, ADS has gone on to decide on the word of the decade. The word for the 1990s was “web”. The next step was to select the word of the century. “Jazz” was the winner.
The word of the millennium? Would you believe it, the word is “she”. In Old English, the word for “she” was “heo”, “hio”. This word merged in its pronunciation with “he”. The gender distinction was lost. So the Old English word “seo”/“sio”, which means “the”, was adapted as the pronoun “she”. This was a most useful new word. But how far can a word serving a grammatical function be accepted as representing the spirit of the millennium? Interestingly, the runner-up, “science”, seems to be a better choice for word of the millennium.
The study of new words and the judgement of their importance should logically be the concern of lexicography. As expected, major dictionaries have taken up the study: Merriam-Webster and American English Dictionary have made their own selections.
When the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (M-W) appeared, it included several new words. Business interests were represented in the words “bubble”, “dead cat bounce”, “headhunter” and “golden handcuffs”. “Identity theft” was from cyber law, and “fast-track” referred to the authority of the US president to negotiate trade agreements that are not subject to amendment by Congress.
The M-W dictionary was updated in 2007, with the addition of a hundred words, including Bollywood, sudoku, chaebol (in Korean: a huge business conglomerate, usually owned by a single family), gray literature (material that is not available in traditional sources, such as reports and working papers), and DVR (digital video recorder).
But the word that came close to “subprime” was “locavore”, recommended by the New American English Dictionary. The second part of the word has a root that is found in carnivorous, herbivorous, and voracious, and refers to eating. Locavores would try to find their food locally, within a radius of 100 miles, or 161km, from home. They prefer to buy from farmer’s markets rather than from supermarkets that transport their supplies over long distances, causing major harm to the environment.
There are two points to be noted here—the words selected are from American contexts and are mainly of American usage, and many words make a brief appearance centre stage, then fall into desuetude and vanish into the pages of the dictionary.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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