Nominees for ADS Word of the Year (and Decade)

« previous post | next post »

Last night, the American Dialect Society (meeting in Baltimore in conjunction with the Linguistics Society of America) selected the final nominees for Word of the Year (2009) and Word of the Decade (2000-09). Here are the WOTY finalists:

-er A suffix used in such words as birther, someone who questions whether Obama was born in the United States; deather, someone who believes the government has death panels in its healthcare reform plan; Tenther, someone who believes the Federal government is mostly illegal because it usurps rights which belong to the States, in violation of the 10th Amendment; and truther, someone who doubts the official account of the 9/11 attacks.
A noun or interjection describing something egregiously unsuccessful. Usually used as an interjection: “FAIL!”
The virus that causes swine flu.
public option A government-run healthcare program, desired by some to be part of the country’s healthcare reform.

And here are the nominees for Word of the Decade:

9/11 The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Pronounced “nine eleven.”
blog A web site for publishing a chronological and ongoing series of related entries, especially when they are all by the same person(s) or on the same topic. Also a productive combining form: blogosphere, blogerati, milblog, blogola.
google Verb meaning “to search the Internet.” Generic form of the trademarked “Google,” the world’s dominant Internet search engine.
green Related to ecological or environmental conservation or protection. Also a productive combining form: greenwashing, green collar, etc.
text Verb: to send a text message via a mobile phone. Noun: such a message.
war on terror A global effort to prevent terror and terrorists.

You can read the full list of nominees, including those for such WOTY subcategories as Most Useful, Most Creative, and Most Likely to Succeed, here. The final votes in all categories will take place tonight (Friday) at 5:30 pm in the Ruth Room of the Baltimore Hilton. Attendees of the cabal, uh, LSA conference (and interested members of the public who happen to be in Baltimore) are welcome to attend and participate.

[OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower gave a running commentary on the nominating session via Twitter, at @jessesheidlower (using the #woty hashtag). Jesse plans to do this again for the final vote, for anyone who would like to follow along at home.]

[Update: Read all about the winners here.]


  1. Dan T. said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    Before the current trendy political usages, -er (or sometimes -or, -ar… maybe even -ir or -ur; the vowel seems very flexible) has had quite a few applications as a suffix meaning "one who does something" or "one who is associated with something/somewhere/somebody"; an investor invests, a conductor conducts, a teacher teaches… does a grocer "groce" or an usher "ush"? Apparently the verb "to sculpt" was a back-formation from "sculptor". Then there's the various uses for geographical association, like "Michigander" and (Ich bin ein) "Berliner". Proto-Indo-European apparently had a usage (related or not) of the suffix to denote family relationships, as seen in "mother", "father", "sister", and "brother".

  2. Yuval said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    Why is "twenty-ten" surprising enough to be nominated in a category at all? It's the natural flow of the English language year-naming paradigm – seventeen seventy-six, eighteen twelve, nineteen eighty-four, twenty ten.
    Maybe Brits who have some affinity to 11-century year names via William the Conqueror's 1066 have a cent or two to chip in?

  3. greg said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    Has "Fail!" really entered common usage? I only recall hearing it amongst my friends who are heavily into computer games and general geekiness.

    Not being a linguist, I'm also curious about the nomination of "-er" and "H1N1" as word of the year. The former is just a morpheme, the latter is an abbreviation of "Hemagglutin 1 Neuraminidase 1", and it isn't even an acronym. Is there some sort of linguist specific meaning for the word "word"?

    I might have to make a trip up to Baltimore to write-in "IED" for word of the decade.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 10:46 am

    The practice of using X-er for "adherents of a doctrine related to X" has a fairly long history, including (for example) Twelver and Sevener Shiites. These particular -er words have OED citations from 1845 onwards:

    1845 Encycl. Metrop. XXIV. 441/2 The Imámís appear to have derived from the Ghulát the doctrine of a present but invisible Imám, the successor of the seventh or the twelfth of the visible Imáms. From these numbers their two principal branches are denominated Seb'ís (Seveners) or Ithná'asharís (Twelvers).

    1876 R. D. OSBORN Islam under Arabs II. i. 167 The Ismailiens, like the Twelvers, make profession of an exclusive attachment to Ali and his descendants.

    More generally, the OED takes the history of this type of -er back to (what they quaintly call) "Old Teutonic":

    In its original use the suffix -{amacbreve}rjo-z was added (like L. -{amac}rius) to ns., forming derivative ns. with the general sense ‘a man who has to do with (the thing denoted by the primary n.)'

    [Sorry, I don't have time this morning to figure out a Unicode representation of "a with a macron and a breve on top of that" that is likely to get rendered correctly by more than one browser/OS combination…]

    So maybe -er ought to be not just the WOTY and the WOTD but even the WOTM and beyond.

  5. Peter Taylor said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    "Text" for word of 2000-2009? Wow. I knew SMS took off later in the US than in Europe, but even so this surprises me. (So do "google" and "green", to be honest).

    As for "teabagger"… Suffice it to say that the definition given is completely unrelated to the meaning intended in all the (far too many) times I've seen it used.

  6. Chris said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    Hmmm, for word of the decade I find 9/11 most interesting, linguistically speaking. While google follows a well known pattern of turning a brand name into a verb (e.g., xerox that for me), 9/11 names an infamous event by the date it occurred. Are there any other examples of this? We don't refer to Pearl Harbor as 12/7 or Waterloo as 6/18 (yep, had to wiki that one). Normally we use place names. I'm trying to think of another example of this usage and I'm coming up blank. Only the fourth of July comes to mind as similar.

  7. Chris said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    What are these voting meetings like? I'll be in Baltimore tonight meeting friends at the LSA. I might pop into the meeting and put in my two cents. Will there be rabid debate, angry protestations, booze…too much to hope for fisticuffs?

  8. John Cowan said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

    Greg: Linguists have no precise definition for word, just as biologists have no precise definition for alive: both are intuitive pre-theoretical concepts. In this context, though, word clearly means something like 'morpheme', which H1N1 clearly is, whether you pronounce it "aitch-wun-en-wun" or "hiney".

  9. Peter Taylor said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    @Chris, it's far more common in Spanish. Cinco de Mayo probably rings a bell, even if you can't say what happened then. My city (Valencia, Spain) has a metro stop, a hospital, and I don't know what else named for the 9th October, commemorating the day it was captured from the Moors in 1238. There are also streets named for (at minimum) the 3rd April, 25th April, 1st May, and 18th July.

  10. Alexis said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    I'm skeptical that "google" (verb) means 'to search the Internet'. To me it can only mean "to search the Internet using Google as a mechanism". If I asked or told someone to Google something I would not expect them to use Yahoo or Bing.

    It's hard to distinguish between the meanings most of the time, because there's insufficient context to determine whether the use of the Google engine was stipulated, but I would like to see evidence that the general definition is correct.

  11. Stephen Nicholson said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    For whatever it's worth Alexis, if I asked someone to "do a web search" for something I still wouldn't expect them to use Yahoo! I'd expect them to use Google.

  12. mollymooly said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    I would agree that "green" is an 80s/90s word in Europe. At that time it referred mainly to ecology and pollution rather than global warming.

    As Peter Taylor says, dates as shorthand for events is common in many cultures; but normally it's commemorating a positive event rather than a calamity.

    "Teabagger" isn't instanced in the ADS list for -er, but rather under "Most Outrageous", which is a wise move. When OUP shortlisted it for their 2009 WOTY it got a lot of irate comments.

  13. greg said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    Chris – there is also the issue that 9/11 refers to 3 incidents at different geographic locations. Referring to it as the "WTC-Pentagon-Middle of Pennsylvania hijacking attacks" is a bit kludgy.

    John – Good to know.

  14. greg said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    An example of date as shorthand for event in english would be "The Fourth of July", though of course it also has other names.

  15. matth said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    It also probably helped that 9/11 both echoes "9-1-1" (the U.S. phone number for emergencies) and visually recalls the Trade Center towers. Of course, I seem to recall that "the September 11th attacks" or "September 11th" was popular for awhile before "9/11" became the universal shorthand for the attacks. So maybe the choice of the date was dictated by practical considerations (lack of any obvious alternative), but the weird symbolism of "9/11" helped it displace "September 11."

  16. Boris said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    I don't know. I still prefer September [the] 11th (with or without the "the") and see it used all the time. "Nine – Eleven" sounds weird to me because people don't normally say a date like that unless they are reading it off of an expiration date label or something.

  17. Dan T. said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av in the Hebrew calendar, is a Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples of Jerusalem, which both happened on this date.

  18. Aviatrix said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 6:02 pm

    "The tragic events of the 11th September" held on for long enough in Canada that I was seeking a shorthand like TEVES, but I think most English speakers, even those who don't use American dates, are saying "nine-eleven" now.

    What won the title for the 20th century? I'm imagining "computer," "World War," "atomic," "aeroplane" and "car" as contenders.

  19. Nik said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

    Aside from the previously noted seperate locations, another difference between 9/11 and events such as Pearl Harbor is notability to said location — the name Pearl Harbor alone is enough to reference the attack because that is the only thing that most people know about the location.

  20. Alexandra said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    @Alexis: It is not uncommon for me to say "I'm gonna go google that" and then look it up in Wikipedia.

  21. Alex said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    Green but not carbon or CO2?
    War on terror but not terrorism?
    What about DVD (As a nominee, though I don't think it should "win")?

  22. AJD said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    Google won for the decade, by the way. Tweet won word of the year on a last-minute nomination. (Aviatrix: Word of the Century was voted in 2000; I think the winner was jazz.

  23. CBK said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 12:35 am

    @Chris and Peter Taylor: more names from dates and information about Cinco de Mayo

    Juneteenth (June 19th), also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. State of Texas in 1865.

    Cinco de Mayo commemorates the victory of the Mexican Army over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, during the French invasion of Mexico.

    Bastille Day, commonly called (according to Wikipedia) le quatorze juillet (the fourteenth of July), commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.

    And then there’s Guy Fawkes Day (or Night), commemorating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, “Remember, remember the fifth of November/ Gunpowder, treason and plot.”

    I’ve put these in chronological order. My guess is that using dates rather than names for holidays became more common for a variety of reasons. Increased literacy, printed calendars, and non-religious holidays might be contributing factors. Easter and some other Christian holidays are “movable feasts,” without fixed calendar dates,

  24. J. Goard said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 1:20 am

    @Chris & Peter:

    I'm in Gwangju, Korea, where the events of May 18, 1980, generally referred to in the English-speaking world as the "Gwangju Massacre" or "Gwangju Democratic Uprising" are overwhelmingly referred to as "o-il-phal" ("five-one-eight").


    I think that's part of the point. Now we can sort of talk about having a dentist appointment on September eleventh without having our train of thought hijacked by "nine-eleven". Same goes for Gwangju, where the way to refer to the date (not the historical event) is "o-weol-sip-phal-il" ("five-month-eighteen-day").

  25. Peter Taylor said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 8:08 am

    @CBK, I considered mentioning Guy Fawkes Night, but I decided it wasn't relevant: people overwhelmingly* call it "Guy Fawkes Night" rather than "The fifth of November".

    * BNC lists 17 occurences of "Guy Fawkes Night"; 2 relevant uses of "fifth of November", one of which is a clear reference to the rhyme; and 2 relevant uses of "November the fifth".

  26. Ken Brown said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    The real revellers call it "Bonfire Night" of course :)

    "Fifth of November" counts because of the song I think.

    I agree that including "green" is odd. Green parties started in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in the 1970s, and in both Britain and the USA in the early 1980s. "Green" as a adjective for "low environmental impact" or "sustainable" is at least that old, and was surely in normal use in newspapers and broadcasting in the 1980s. The UK Green parties changed their name to "Green" because it was generally understood – before that they had been the "Ecology party".

    Also I think they are wrong about "fail" as an interjection. That's old – if not that common. The neologism is "fail" as a noun – "epic fail" or "massive" fail" weren't used until very recently.

  27. CBK said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 4:48 pm

    @Peter Taylor and Ken Brown:

    Sorry to be unclear. The list that I gave suggested (to me anyway) that the more recently established the holiday commemorating an event on a particular date, the more likely it would be to have a numerical name. "Guy Fawkes" is the earliest in my list and, from what you say, obeys that rule.

    I don't know when people started celebrating secular holidays in various places. Before holidays like Guy Fawkes and Bastille Day, Christian holidays in Europe were perhaps only Easter and saints' days. The latter seem all to be "moveable feasts" so it was not possible to refer to them by date. Guy Fawkes Night might have been a new sort of holiday because it afforded two descriptors–the event and the date.

RSS feed for comments on this post