The "Word of the Year" should be a word

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The Oxford Dictionaries organization (responsible for marketing the Oxford English Dictionary and its many spinoffs and abridgments) picks a word at the end of each year that they think epitomizes the main currents of what happened in the world (or the anglophone parts of it). Or to be more accurate, they pick either a word or a phrase. And two years running they have picked phrases. I want to argue that this is a mistake, not just because they have chosen an utterly undistinguished item, but because what they have chosen is a straightforwardly compositional phrase, one that couldn't be argued to be a lexical item at all.

Words are coined, relatively rarely — there may be hundreds that catch on in a year, but relative to how many words are spoken and written each day that is minuscule. Phrases, on the other hand, are composed on the fly every second. There are so many of them that it is impossible for most of them to occur frequently. For a concrete example, I just looked back at what I've already written, and picked out "anglophone parts of it". Google comes up with just one web hit for it: a contributor called Jotun used it on this history discussion site. And that's it, apart from one Google Books hit from the Encyclopedia of Latin American and Caribbean literature, 1900-2003. It's breakfast time in Edinburgh, and already I've come within two instances of creating a phrase never recorded before. You've probably used a phrase today that never occurred before in the history of the world (I don't know; I wasn't with you the whole time, but you were always there in the room).

What the OED people have chosen for this year (reported here) is squeezed middle. Yes, a UK Labour Party politician's feeble phrase for denoting an allegedly squeezed and put-upon class trapped in between the welfare riff-raff below (well taken care of with luxury soup kitchens and lavish handouts of cash, as is well known) and the fat-cat billionaires above. This is, first, a tired political cliché, plugged recently by Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK parliament, designed by spin doctors and speechwriters to make everyone think that they are part of the squeezed middle and thus incline them toward the sympathetic pol who is using the phrase to oil them up for voting. (After typing "oil them up for voting" I decided to google it, by the way, and found that it has never appeared on the web before.)

But my real objection is not to the feebleness and blatantly political origin of this phrase (which ordinary people are simply not using), but to the fact that it is fully compositional: squeezed just means "squeezed", and middle just means "middle", and if you put the two together you have the literal meaning. It is ridiculous to think of putting this in a dictionary — as opposed to a collection of political phraseology and cliché.

Oxford University Press has defended itself against such charges by issuing this FAQ response: "From a dictionary-maker's point of view, a two-word expression is called a 'compound' and is treated as one word [a 'headword'] in the dictionary." Nonsense. This is not a compound. It is an ordinary nominal with a participle functioning as attributive modifier of a noun. OUP needs a competent in-house grammarian. (See Chapter 19 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language for an accurate account of the types of compound in English.)

OUP also points out (as if in justification) that it has done this before: last year its "word of the year" was big society. Another phrase invented by political advisers — UK prime minister David Cameron's term for a society with what George H. W. Bush called a thousand points of light (i.e., private donors who will fund the soup kitchens). Again, despite the specialized political context of use and the attempt to create a buzz, big just means "big", as in big-hearted (though that actually is a compound). It is truly ridiculous to cite an earlier error as a precedent that legitimates the new error.

The word of the year should be a word. That shouldn't be such a radical idea, should it? There are plenty to choose from. The American Dialect Society will be choosing from among them when it selects its word of the year for 2011 at its annual meeting, co-located with the meeting of the Linguistic Society of American in Portland, Oregon, 5-8 January 2012. I will be there, and will try to prevent compositional phrases from being picked.

[Comments are closed. Just one more injustice for the squeezed middle.]

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