As the year draws to a close, lexicographers and logophiles have been engaged in the search for “words of the year”. Every major dictionary makes its choice, and we have half a dozen contenders for this accolade.
Global Language Monitor (GLM), a Texas-based company that keeps track of trends in language use, announced that “occupy” is the top word for 2011. Linguist Geoff Nunberg, speaking on National Public Radio, said that considering how the word shaped our perception of important events, it deserved to be the word of the year. Occupy Wall Street denotes a series of demonstrations that began on 17 September to protest against economic injustice, particularly against greed and corruption in the financial services sector. Within a month, the movement spread to 82 countries. It brought into focus the difference between “them” and “us”, between the 1% and the 99%.
Another term that vied for top place was “squeezed middle”, coined by British politician Ed Miliband. It was named word of the year by Oxford dictionaries. Close contenders were “Arab spring” and “phone hacking”. Earlier, president Clinton had spoken about “hard-pressed working families squeezed in the middle”. The phrase refers to the situation where inflation outpaces increases in wages for middle income earners, while top wage earners remain unaffected.
It was a surprise to find that dictionary.com, the popular online dictionary, chose “tergiversate” as its word of the year. It is a word of low frequency. The experts said that it was a difficult choice for a difficult year. The word means to keep changing one’s attitude or opinion on a subject or a cause, evading a straightforward statement. The markets tergiversate; so do politicians and the media.
Many of the top words were formed by the process of blending, as in “globesity”, recorded by Chambers Dictionary, 12th edition. The word shows how people are concerned about undesirable weight gain. It was first used in a World Health Organization report on obesity. “Muffin top” is the name given to the ring of flesh seen above the waistband of trousers that are worn tight. It used to be called spare tire. Another word high on the list is “hacktivism”, the use of computer networks as media of protest on political issues. The fashion world came up with “jeggings”, a blend of jeans and leggings.
Some other words and phrases in the news are “bunga bunga”, orgiastic after-dinner entertainment associated with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. “Couch surfing” is a form of inexpensive travel in which you accept free accommodation even from strangers and sleep on the host’s couch.
“Non-veg”, a word fully accepted in Indian English, has a place in GLM’s list. A “tiger mother” is a demanding mother, who pushes her children to the limit, hoping to make them achievers. “Climate change” continues to be close to the top of the list. With the 2012 Olympics in the offing, “ambush marketing” is going to be a matter of concern. Companies will try to get their brands associated with the event without making any payment for official sponsorship.
Scholars have been using apocalyptic-type terminology in describing the fury of nature in tsunamis and earthquakes, and the brutality of man in genocide, ethnic cleansing and massacres. From the previous year came words such as snowmageddon, snowpocalyse and snowzilla (Wikipedia). Holocaust, once linked to Nazi Germany, is now used in other contexts. After the March earthquake in Japan, reporters wrote about biblical devastation. On the heels of that came a tsunami, a nuclear meltdown and a volcanic eruption. The tragedy in Fukushima has no parallel as of now, and some people see in it a prelude to the end of the world, predicted for the impending doomsday on 21 December 2012.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and 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.
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