The "Word of the Year" need not be a word

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My colleague Geoff Pullum has objected to the selection of squeezed middle as Oxford Dictionaries' 2011 Word of the Year on the grounds that "the 'Word of the Year' should be a word." Allow me to provide a counterpoint to this view.

First, full disclosure. In January, at the most recent meeting of the American Dialect Society, I was named the chair of the New Words Committee, and in this capacity I preside over the selection of the ADS Word of the Year (working closely with old hands at the WOTY game like ADS executive secretary Allan Metcalf and vice president for communications and technology Grant Barrett). I also now edit the "Among the New Words" feature in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the ADS, which covers neologisms of all sorts, WOTY nominees included. (See the Summer 2011 installment for a roundup of last year's nominees, including the winner app and the runner-up nom.) Further disclosure: before my current job as executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, I was editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and was responsible for overseeing the New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year — in 2007, for example, we selected locavore.

All things being equal, I do generally prefer that a "Word of the Year" be what is generally recognized as a word: that is, a single written unit like locavore, app, or nom. For starters, such selections are a lot easier to explain to the general public. As Jesse Sheidlower wrote in his recap of the 2004 ADS WOTY selection for Slate, "It's not actually 'Word' of the Year; it can be a compound, phrase, prefix, or so forth, but we know we can't get away with promoting a 'Lexical Item' of the Year." But whether it is the ADS or a dictionary program like Oxford's making the choice, lexical items are indeed what should properly be considered, even if those items form compounds or phrases.

I agree with Geoff that the press release from Oxford Dictionaries erred in explaining squeezed middle as a compound. Nonetheless, I think that a compositional phrase can be sufficiently lexicalized for consideration as Word of the Year — especially when a dictionary is making the selection. Though Geoff argues that it's "ridiculous to think of putting this in a dictionary," dictionaries from the OED on down are in fact full of such phrases. Sometimes they are lemmatized separately, and sometimes they appear in so-called "run-on entries" — so that an ADJ-N phrase can be found under the head noun. (Not just any phrase will do, of course: to be considered for inclusion, it has to achieve sufficient prominence and distinctiveness in common usage, which is not the case for such collocations as "anglophone parts of it," mentioned by Geoff in his post.)

Consider, for instance, the ADS 2004 WOTY selection, which was not just one such phrase but three: red state, blue state, and purple state, as used in US political geography (see my historical explanation here). The latest dictionary editions from American Heritage and Oxford include red state and blue state as headwords (with American Heritage adding purple state) — and why shouldn't they? Such political phrases can be "compositional" while still being invested with special new meanings that lexicographers would rightly want to document. Squeezed middle would appear to fit that class. (I think it's an odd WOTY choice for other reasons — especially the fact that Oxford's UK and US dictionary programs decided to make this a joint transatlantic selection. The press release says that "the Word of the Year committee in the US felt [squeezed middle] had good resonance in the US, as well," but I have yet to discern such resonance on this side of the pond, in a year dominated by such words as occupy.)

The nomination and selection process for ADS WOTY is a democratic one, with all those in attendance at the annual meeting encouraged to vote and make their voices heard. I am pleased to learn that Geoff will be making his inimitable voice heard at our January proceedings in Portland, and if he would like to lead a non-phrasal brigade he is more than welcome to. But I don't expect the lexicographers in the room to agree with him.



38 Comments

  1. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Well, I'm more on the Pullum side of this. I don't think squeezed middle has any meaning more than the sum of its parts. I've never even registered it as a fixed phrase.

    German has not only a Wort des Jahres but also the "Unwort des Jahres", usually the most cynical expression from politics. I think Haircut is probably a favourite for one or the other this year. Though they take the year bit seriously and only close nominations/voting on 31 December, so we'll have to wait a bit.

  2. Joe said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 9:41 am

    Hmm. I think I am more inclined to agree with Pullum on this one. Partly I guess it depends upon what we mean by "compositional." A term like "Red State" may syntactically compositional, but it certainly isn't semantically so (it might be if "red" meant "leftist," but it doesn't, as mentioned in your piece). Maybe it's just me, but I think "squeezed middle" is semantically compositional, and is, to me at least, a bit vague as to its precise meaning, other than to say that the middle class, is, well, being squeezed.

  3. MattF said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    Saying that what you really mean is "Lexical Item of the Year: illustrates the problem– it's rather like an award for "'Something-or-other' of the Year". Maybe 'Something-or-other' deserves an award, but it's hard to see why it deserves an award from lexicographers.

  4. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    While it seems to me that the occasional compositional phrase might warrant "word of the year" status, I agree with Prof. Pullum that "squeezed middle" isn't an appropriate winner. Seems to me that "Occupy" is a better choice, since the current activism is expanding the meaning of that word.

  5. Jamie F said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:16 am

    @MattF Hard to see why "'LEXICal Item' of the Year" deserves an award from LEXICographers?

  6. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:47 am

    This looks like four people who broadly agree with me. One other person on my side is our senior colleague Melvyn Quince, who commented (see his "Between libretto and lice") on the strange existence of a dictionary entry for Libyan Desert, which said that the phrase is used to designate a Libyan desert. Dictionaries are going to get pretty expensive if that sort of policy continues, aren't they?

    And against Quince's view one could at least point out that Libyan Desert is a proper name, specifically the name of a place (not that I think an English dictionary should record every place name). Squeezed middle is not a proper name.

    Moreover, as Ben points out, nobody knows this phrase in America. (Someone from OUP said on Radio 4 today that Clinton used it, but I'm not so sure. We need a citation. Ben is just the guy to look for it, though, and he says above that the phrase is not much known in the USA.) It's a terrible choice. One has to begin to wonder whether the choice made by OUP is not just a sign that the Word of the Year selection task is alternating between Tories and Labourites, given that they picked a Conservative Party buzz-phrase last year and a Labour Party buzz-phrase this year.

    This is not the kind of informed lexicography I would have hoped for. And if there are similarly deluded lexicographers in the room at the American Dialect Society meeting in January (Ben threatens this at the end of his post), then things could get ugly.

    The debate and nomination convention will be on Thursday evening, January 5, in Salon II at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower, 921 SW Sixth Avenue, Portland, Oregon, between 6:15 and 7:15, and the election will take place on Friday evening, 6 January, in a giant ballroom created by merging Salons I, II, and III, between 5:30 and 6:30. Security personnel will be on hand to control the crowds, and a press conference will be held afterwards to spin the result.

  7. John Lawler said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:49 am

    "Squeezed Middle" seems too British; I can figure it out, but it's not familiar to me, here in the USA. Certainly it's far from a catchphrase, let alone a contender.

    However, this can be repaired. Simply change it to "Squoze Middle" in the U.S. editions, and credit it to Rick Perry. Everyone in America will immediately believe it.

    I should say for the record that I care not what the lexical item of the year is; it's just another manifestation of BBoW thinking. I think "Paragraph of the Year" would be a far more interesting contest, but no doubt outside the OED's purview.

  8. languagehat said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 11:11 am

    While I agree with Ben that the "word of the year" need not necessarily be printed without spaces (baseball was once base ball, and in that form it would have made a fine word of the year in, say, 1846), I agree with Geoff that this particular example is terrible, both in its UK-only nature (I will give FIVE SILVER DOLLARS — all right, maybe just grudging acknowledgment — to anyone who can produce a believable poll showing that any substantial number of my fellow Yanks are familiar with the phrase) and in its glaring lack of compoundicity.

    (I agree with John Lawler about the silliness of X-of-the-Year puff pieces, but I am resigned to the fact that in this fallen era, dictionaries and societies have to market themselves as best they can.)

  9. Michael Sharp said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 11:52 am

    The complaint that "squeezed middle" is a phrase and not a word seems a very petty one. Bigger issue is how utterly unresonant the phrase is, at least in the U.S. No one will have any idea what this phrase means five years from now. "Locavore," by contrast, seems to have stuck, at least for the short term. The entire remaining "short list" was better than "squeezed middle."

    [It's a bit silly to call my charge about phrasehood (and more substantially, compositionality) "petty". This is Language Log, not Cultural Resonance Log. The whole point of my post was that compositional phrases should not be put in dictionaries — and (I implied) that nothing should win the Word of the Year competition unless it is eligible to be put in a dictionary. Yes, it is unresonant and feeble too. But my linguistic point stands: you do not need a dictionary to understand it, provided you understand what squeeze means and what middle means. Phrases that do not need special explanation of their meanings have no right to be in a dictionary or a word-of-the-year contest. Ben is right to note that you have to be smart enough to see that the middle in this case is supposed to be the people in the middle of the scale of income (and hence derivatively in the middle of the scale of social standing based on money). But that was obvious from the context of use. Middle still means "middle", even if it would be possible to expand Miliband's phrase to make it more transparent. This is not an idiom; it's just a use of squeezed to modify middle. —GKP]

  10. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 12:00 pm

    Squeeze play is in my dictionary precisely because, I assert, that its meaning is not clear from the meanings of its components. Silent partner is there but silent majority is not (if we are venturing into the land of politics) for the same reason. None of this is an argument against the choice of squeezed middle, but if that election is to stand, how in the future will the OED folks sort through all the amazing, catchy adjective+noun combinations in currency?

  11. Chris Brew said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 2:09 pm

    The game of making non-compositional idiomatic meanings for Libyan Desert is very attractive. Synonym for "land war in Asia"? Could it have been Libyan Dessert? (synonym for "dog's breakfast"). These are all read herrings.

  12. Chris Brew said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

    I wish it had been "Human Microphone".

  13. Faldone said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

    In defense of "squeezed middle" let me say that its meaning is not obvious from its parts. It could just as easily refer to, e.g., a tightly corseted waist or an underfunded school between elementary and high.

  14. Xmun said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

    What's the point of having a "Word of the Year" anyway? It's just a silly attempt to grab a headline. But I agree: "squeezed middle" ain't a word. It's a noun phrase.

  15. Adrian said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

    Why has Geoff hijacked Ben's post? Perhaps he should consider allowing comments on his own posts from time to time.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    - Does the "word of the year" rate its own entry if it is not a single word? That is, does "squeezed middle" (a combination that was unknown to me, a Canadian resident, in both form and meaning until I read this article) rate an entry, rather than being listed under either "squeeze" or "middle" or both? Is GKP objecting to making it a possible dictionary entry, or to mentioning it within an existing entry?

    – Monolingual dictionaries are not just a record for speakers of the dominant dialect of the country where the dictionary is published. They are also indispensable for foreigners, both native and non-native speakers, who may know the language quite well but be unfamiliar with the specific culture of the dictionary, especially with its transient aspects. Would the meaming of "squeezed middle" be immediately obvious in New Zealand, Pakistan, or even Florida?

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 6:37 pm

    The problem with Libyan Desert was the definition, not the existence of the entry. M-W's entry matches what I'd understood (more or less): "desert N Africa W of the Nile in Libya, Egypt, & Sudan".

    I wonder what dictionary defined it as "desert in Libya".

  18. brian said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    "Word of the year" is as silly an exercise as "gadget of the year"; no committee will ever be prescient enough to pick a word / phrase that will actually withstand society’s fickle ways. This is an attempt to garner some limelight with a nod to the ensuing economic mess around us.

    The most surprising aspect is that they took “squeezed middle” seriously when it was championed by a man who will be remembered only for his exasperating use of cliché.

  19. languagehat said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

    Why has Geoff hijacked Ben's post? Perhaps he should consider allowing comments on his own posts from time to time.

    For Pete's sake, he has a perfect right to respond in a thread about his own idea; in the extremely unlikely event that his participation bothers Ben, I think you can trust Ben to look out for himself. He's made it quite clear he's not going to allow comments on his posts, and personally, I enjoy reading his endlessly varied explanations at the end of each post at least as much as I would enjoy the comment threads.

    [(bgz) You correctly surmise that I'm not the least bothered by Geoff responding to comments.]

  20. Matt said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    I don't know — I mean, it is compositional, and you would probably be able to figure out that it refers to some middle portion suffering restrictions due to circumstances favoring either end, but I don't think that it is obvious that it refers to the middle class suffering under tax burdens.

    It could have been coined to refer to people in suburbs not getting enough public funding relative to urban and rural areas; or middle-rank financiers feeling put upon because they don't get as much money or independence as the top rank but, unlike the lower ranks, *are* included in the popular conception of who is responsible for financial crises; or political polarization, leading to more people on each "side" but fewer in the middle willing to compromise.

    But it isn't used for these meanings. It is only used for one (apparently). So I have to agree with Ben that it is "sufficiently lexicalized" to at least qualify.

  21. Mark F. said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

    If you Google "the middle class is getting squeezed" you get very many hits from US sources. So the notion that squeezing is something that is happening to the middle class is certainly familiar to Americans. (I see it in newsgroups going back to the early 90's.) But "squeezed middle" is simply not a lexical item in my idiolect. It's not its phrasal status or its compositionality that keeps it from being a word, it's just that it isn't being used as one. Perhaps it's a good UK WOTY, but not a transatlantic one.

    Compositionality does not prevent wordhood. A blue straggler is a particular kind of star. They are blue, and they are stragglers in the sense that they have stayed on the main sequence longer than expected. So they are compositional. But "blue straggler" is still a word in astronomy.

  22. chrys said,

    November 23, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    Mark F.'s observation is interesting and seems to reinforce Ben's side of the argument quite strongly: the concept of a "squeezed" middle class exists in the US, but "squeezed middle" does not resonate with Americans – because the technical term "squeezed middle" is not established in US English as it is in the UK.

    This seems to back up the assertion that "squeezed middle" is indeed a lexical item, because it is a well-established expression with a quite specific meaning, immediately understood by those familiar with it but not understandable to others without considerable contextual detail – even when the latter are very familiar with the underlying concept.

    I can relate to Geoff Pullum's difficulty in accepting a dictionary publisher's WOTY choice if it does not appear as a headword in any dictionary, but I do not see why others such as the ADS should feel any qualms in making such a selection.

  23. DrSAR said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 1:41 am

    @John Lawler: BBoW?

  24. yonray said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 4:47 am

    I agree that the choice is weak and the entire concept of the accolade rather preposterous, but what really amazes me about all this is that Oxford Dictionaries made such an elementary (at least, for people in their field) error.

    @DrSAR:
    interwebs gave me Bad Boys of Wrestling and Bulging Bag of Waters. It is therefore with great regret that I must tell you that I think John Lawler means Big Bag of Words

  25. RP said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 5:04 am

    Matt says, "I don't think that it is obvious that it refers to the middle class suffering under tax burdens."

    I don't think it does. The OUP defines it as follows on blog.oup.com: "the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes, and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those people on low or middle incomes." No mention of tax.

    GKP thought an OUP spokesperson had said that Clinton once used the phrase. The spokesperson might have said (or intended to say) something even vaguer: "Dent herself said that she believed a version of the phrase might first have been used by Bill Clinton in the 1990s." ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/nov/23/squeezed-middle-word-of-year ) A version! In the 1990s!

  26. Ken Brown said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 6:48 am

    I dispute that "squeezed middle" is established as a technical term in the UK. I'm British, I pay attention to the news, I'm a member of a political party (the same one as Mr Milibland) and a trade union, I even read blogs about words and language, and I can't remember ever hearing it before. That doesn't mean I haven't, but it is a clue that the term isn't in common use.

    I've got no objection to the WOTY being a noun whose traditional spelling has spaces between its parts. But it ought to be something that reminds peope who lived through it of the times they lived through. The phrase "Big Society" in all its bullshitting marketing-droid vacuity, does remind us of the first years of Mr Cameron's government, because we heard it so often. "Squeezed Middle" doesn't.

    Does anyone here remember a time when people looking for votes did NOT talk about the middle class being squeezed?

  27. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    Like Ken Brown, I've never heard the term "squeezed middle" before this post either, I know we're only two data-points, but I don't think *anybody* has popped up yet to say "yes, this phrase really sums something up about Britain in 2011".

  28. Sashura said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    Shouldn't the promotional value of selecting a certain word or phrase as Word of the Year be considered too? Whether it goes into dictionaries and stays there, imagine the mileage it would give not just to linguists, but activiists, sociologists, accountants, therapists, personal trainers and educated housepersons. In the end some slightly different, but similar word or phrase may indeed enter the language on a wider and more permanent basis.

    And another point: occupiers/occupants claim to represent the 99 percent. If one surmises that that 99 percent equals the 'squeezed middle', does that mean that we are in trouble with numbers or with words, or both?

  29. jan said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    When did people start talking about "God's 'word'", in the singular, even though the Bible contains many words?
    Also, "I give you my word," singular, even though the promise referred to contains several words…
    I feel like leaving it at that.
    Thanks.
    Happy Thanksgiving.

  30. Chris Waigl said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

    "Squeezed middle" was (*) maybe more of a trope than a fully lexicalised term, but overall I'm with Ben on this one. Especially since I'd be rather disappointed if the 2011 ADS word of the year came out as something other than "the 99%", which is really not a word either.

    (*) I moved away from the UK in February, so my following the news has fallen off a little, so I am not sure if the term is already done and dusted and has left the political debate. I suspect it's mostly a thing of the past. But it was surely a very much present concept in the period around the last general election.

  31. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    This seems to back up the assertion that "squeezed middle" is indeed a lexical item, because it is a well-established expression with a quite specific meaning, immediately understood by those familiar with it but not understandable to others without considerable contextual detail – even when the latter are very familiar with the underlying concept.

    I'm not sure that logic strictly follows. If I talk about "my favourite blue shirt" you don't know which exact shirts I'm talking about unless you know me and my clothing, but that doesn't make "my favourite blue shirt" a unique lexical item describing a specific shirt, it's just that I happen to use that phrase to mean one particular thing.

  32. Chandra said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 3:39 pm

    @Dan Hemmens – I'm not sure your logic strictly follows. We may not know which exact shirt you speak of, but it's clear enough that you're talking about a preferred article of clothing of a specified hue that belongs to you.

    In the case of "squeezed middle", those of us unfamiliar with the phrase have no context whatsoever for "middle". It could be a term from any field of study identifying anything in the universe that happens to have a middle. Quite a different scenario from not being sure which amongst a selection of shirts you happen to be talking about.

  33. Dan Hemmens said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    In the case of "squeezed middle", those of us unfamiliar with the phrase have no context whatsoever for "middle".

    True, but I think that's a difference of degree rather than of type. I don't think the fact that the phrase only makes sense in context is, in and of itself, evidence that it's a unique lexical object rather a compositional phrase of no special value.

    You're right that my example isn't exactly analogous, I was just attempting to point out that the fact that people don't know which "middle" is being "squeezed" or how does not necessarily mean that any given meaning is not compositional. Or something, I'm not a linguist.

  34. Mark F. said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    Big business, big game, big lie, big toe, hot spring, housing project, and red ant are all headwords in MW9. They seem about as close to compositional to me as "squeezed middle". So I think you could make a case that it's actually a word in Ed Milliband's idiolect. I just don't think it's a word to the broader community.

  35. Stuart said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    @languagehat "personally, I enjoy reading his endlessly varied explanations at the end of each post at least as much as I would enjoy the comment threads."

    I just want to second this wholeheartedly, and to say that I am with Professor Pullum on the merits of "squeezed middle" being a "word".

  36. Glenn Bingham said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 3:12 pm

    The whole problem stems from thinking that "Word of the Year" is compositional. It is not. It is a lexical item that means, "the linguistic item that in recent memory has ascended to cliche-hood most swiftly." Should there be a paragraph repeated into oblivion over the period of the last 15 months, it would qualify.

    As far as the Ben/Geoff positions on the selection…
    What better way than this to call into question the composition/idiom distinction? Are there clear-cut boundaries? Is it more of a spectrum? Is there any middle ground between "kick the bucket" and "my orange Camaro?" Is it predictable? The comments aimed at these questions have perked my ears up. (And I can wiggle them, too.)

  37. Patricia said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 12:33 am

    I can only presume that any woman in the US who hears the term "squeezed middle" will immediately think of the word SPANX. Synonym: body shaper, girdle. Or maybe it's just me. (Don't go clothes shopping on the same day you hear new terms such as "squeezed middle". What a laugh.)

  38. Sprizouse said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

    Late to this post, but what the heck… it seems to me that squeezed middle is a poor choice considering there are so many other worthy candidates for WotY.

    Occupy
    Spring (or Winter, take your pick)
    Austerity
    Winning
    Bankster
    Revolution

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