Word formation in American English is part inventiveness and part waggishness. The year just gone by has contributed its share of words.
On 9 January, the American Dialect Society and the Linguistic Society of America voted for the Word of the Year (Woty) 2008, after looking at the scores of words nominated for this recognition by academics, lexicographers, media persons and amateur wordsmiths.
The words nominated included new words as well as old words that had become prominent during the year. “Change” is not a new word but was at the top of the list for a while. Both US Republican presidential nominee John McCain and his Democratic counterpart Barack Obama focused on change as the need of the hour.
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As a result of the vote, “bailout” was declared Woty for 2008. This is a fitting sequel to last year’s word, “subprime”, since both are of Wall Street provenance.
Those who have been following the story of the vote can see that nominations have come mainly from two sources.
During the first three quarters of 2008, the historic presidential elections in the US unfolded a new chapter in history, ushering in the “post-racial period”. Then came the deepening global financial crisis which made people talk about bailout and meltdown and Main Street versus Wall Street.
“Bailout” has at least three common meanings. First, it means parachuting to safety from an aircraft in an emergency. Second, it means coming to the rescue of a corporation or other business organization on the brink of failure. Third, it means release of an arrested person against a deposit of money and a guarantee of the person’s compliance with the court’s orders. In the use of “bailout” in the modern financial context, there is a trace of all three meanings. An additional figurative meaning can be drawn from bailout in the sense of saving a sinking boat by scooping out water from it with a bail or bucket.
The second place on the vote went to “Obama”, not the name itself but the derived terms. An obvious coinage was Obamanation or Obamination. There were dozens of such words, including Obama-phoria, Obamatopia, Obamaland, Obamaspeak, and, inevitably, Obamamania.
When Sarah Palin stepped on stage, the headline ran, “Palin mania sweeping the nation”. Anything that has her name on it, they said, would sell like hot cakes. But not for long, as the Palin association did more damage than good to the campaign.
Another interesting word in the news was “maverick”. McCain and Palin repeatedly called themselves mavericks. The word means an unbranded calf, and can be traced to the name of Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher who did not brand his cattle and allowed them to stray. By extension the word came to mean a dissenter or a non-conformist.
The year saw the creation of several words with the suffix “-gate”. A legacy of Watergate and the Richard Nixon era, the suffix continues to be productive. Whenever there is a scam, the term is invoked. “Spitzergate” and “Palingate” are examples with proper nouns as roots. “Wardrobegate” emerged after Palin went on a lavish shopping spree that cost the campaign a quarter of a million dollars. Then there was “Blagojevichgate” linked to the name of the Illinois governor who tried to sell a senate appointment.
Turning to the other major source of words of the year, the financial crisis was known by different names: Downturn was a mild term compared with recession, meltdown, and credit crunch.
“Meltdown” primarily refers to the failure of the cooling system of a nuclear reactor resulting in the melting of the fuel rods and release of dangerous radiation. Environmentalists are worried about another meltdown, that of Arctic ice. But faced with the grave threat to the economy, European Union leaders are considering putting global warming as an issue on the back burner (Mint, 14 October, 2008).
The nominations included a few words that were not linked to either the election or the financial crisis. “Recombobulation area” refers to an area in the airport where passengers could get their belongings back after passing security. “Shovel-ready” was declared most likely to succeed, and refers to an infrastructure project ready to start when funds are available.
Michael Phelps, who won eight medals and set seven records in the 2008 summer Olympics, inspired the word “Phelpsian” for excellent, outstanding. “Staycation” was the combination of stay and vacation, and meant a vacation spent without travelling.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org