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Why can't we all get along? Let's end the argument about whether the Word Of The Year should sometimes be a phrase by having a separate competition for Phrase Of The Year.

And we can divide the POTY prize further into two categories: one category for phrases that remain entirely compositional in meaning, but are newly-common terms for newly-popular concepts; and another category for newly-popular phrases whose common usage is an opaque metaphorical or metonymic extension of its basic compositional meaning.

This doesn't end all possible arguments — the boundary between words and phrases is historically as contested as the boundary between Germany and Poland or Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it should restore relative peace to the Language Log Senior Common Room, as well as giving lexicographers more journalistic shelf space by multiplying the number of linguistic X-OTY items to display. (Next: Catch-phrase Of The Year; Genericide Of The Year; … We can use all 26 letters of the alphabet, from Allomorph Of The Year to Zeugma of the Year, and then we can start on the likely initial clusters, like Structural Metaphor Of The Year. )

My nomination in the first POTY category is texting glove. Texting gloves are gloves that permit you to use capacitive virtual keyboards, whether by lacking fingertips entirely, by allowing the tips of the index finger and thumb to be uncovered, or by embedding conductive materials in the fingertips or throughout the glove. A particular design (or at least an ad for it) is targetted at snowboarders; and I've seen a phyrsical ad for a (nitrile?) medical-exam version, which for some reason I can't find on line. Fingerless gloves have been around for a long time; but the idea of calling them "texting gloves", and using them for that purpose, is new — as (I think) is the style of uncovering just the thumb and index finger, or of using silver-coated fibers or other conductive materials.

And in the second POTY category, the obvious nominee is Occupy Wall Street.

The floor — or at least the comments section — is open for further nominees.


  1. Mary Bull said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Would someone like to help with the phrase "Reactive Upper Respiratory Disease"? It's the diagnosis for an illness plaguing several of my Texas kin this Thanksgiving — main symptom is severe and uncontrollable bouts of coughing.

    I'd never heard this phrase before and think it may be new, since I can only find "Reactive Airway Disease" on-line. If many people are getting diagnosed as having this, it may turn out to be a POTY candidate.

  2. bks said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 9:33 am

    POTY candidates: Fukushima Daiichi, Human Microphone


  3. mollymooly said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 9:50 am

    "Fukushima Daiichi" is a pure proper noun, unlike "Occupy Wall Street" or (perhaps, in which case my nominee) "Arab Spring".

  4. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 10:26 am

    "Arab spring" will probably win. But it won't get my vote. My nomination for the Compositional Phrase Of The Year is: "misguided and ridiculous Oxford Dictionaries word-of-the-year choice".

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    Yes, Geoffrey. And you will use all 27 letters of the alphabet. (For those not privy to the joke: I allude to the apostrophe.)

  6. Mary Bull said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 11:17 am

    Enjoying the banter!

    Mary, sympathetic by-stander

  7. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 11:26 am

    Afrikaans has a word that begins with an apostrophe: 'n (indefinite article), but it's alphabetized under N (and not usually capitalized when it begins a sentence. Of course, English has 'tis and the like, but these don't have the same canonical status as 'n.

  8. a George said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    I've been with Geoffrey K. Pullum all along, only he would not let me say it. A word is a word (read my lips).
    I'm dense, I did not get Eric P Smith's joke (not privy?), and I missed bjkpqvz.

  9. Andrew said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    I nominate "Phrase Of The Year" as Word of the Year. And vice versa.

  10. DL said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

    Re A George: And the apostrophe!

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

    Let's see….

    Allomorph of the Year
    Bullshit of the Year (in the technical sense, of course)
    Catchphrase of the Year
    Derogatory Phrase of the Year
    Etymological Error of the Year

    I'm taking this opportunity to shamelessly plug the language-related "walks into a bar" jokes at alt.usage.english, which is along somewhat similar lines. I think it has run well above Sturgeon's Law.

  12. Glenn Bingham said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    If I'd consumed all the asiago cheese…
    Humans: If I'd consumed all the asiago cheese…

    …that occupied my mind-brain this spring,…
    Humans: …that occupied my mind-brain this spring,…

    …I would no doubt…
    Humans: …I would no doubt…

    …develop reactive upper cranial disease.
    Humans: …develop reactive upper cranial disease.

    >>>Candidate for Non Sequitur of the Year, using all 28 letters.

  13. John Lawler said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    Entirely compositional, but common in a new environment,
    viz. Ingredients Lists on food-like substance containers:
    dehydrated cane juice crystals

  14. Chandra said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    POTY gets my vote for Scatological Chance Reference of the Year.

    [(myl) SCROTY! Another brand, another few inches of journalistic shelf space!]

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 25, 2011 @ 7:05 pm

    Now I'm wondering if GKP's passing note in his original post that "oil them up for voting" was a string thitherto unknown to google was a sly way of proposing a massive grassroots/viral campaign that would transform "oil them up for voting" from utter obscurity to serious contention for "Word of the Year" 12 months from now, discrediting the whole concept to the point of collapse. Alas, this candidate may suffer an even greater transatlantic problem than "squeezed middle." I don't think U.S. politicians oil voters up. They certainly butter them up and might be perhaps more vulgarly said to grease them up, but "oil up" in this sense may be unidiomatic in AmEng.

  16. SimonMH said,

    November 26, 2011 @ 2:51 am

    It seems to me that the whole concept of WOTY or POTY is yet another example of feckless bourgeois parasitism: the desire to elevate some words to a socio-economic status far above their intrinsic merit while leaving the heaving mass of proletarian function words in a state of exploited, unrecognised and sweaty toil.

    [(myl) The trouble with this metaphor is that (depending on definitions and methods) there are fewer than 200 function words in English, compared with (depending on definitions and methods) more than 100,000 content words, so that your analysis has the toil of the 0.2% supporting the leisure of the 99.8%.

    But you could turn this around and observe that as few as 20 words (0.02% or less) routinely hog a third of the available text space ("Britain's scientists risk becoming hypocritical laughing-stocks, research suggests", 12/16/2006; "Only 20 words for a third of what they say: a replication", 12/16/2006; "An apology to our readers", 12/28/2006; "Vicky Pollard's revenge", 1/2/2007). The WOTY would never be among that hyper-elite, however.]

  17. SimonMH said,

    November 26, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    I must admit defeat. 200 is hardly a heaving mass, but it is at least a significant demonstration. I change my plea to minority rights, as well as working time directives. If we must have POTY and OTY, can we please have FWOTY, in recognition of sterling service.

  18. Sprizouse said,

    November 30, 2011 @ 11:23 pm

    Expansionary Austerity
    Debt Ceiling (manufactured out of whole cloth by the wingnuts, but still)
    European Debt Crisis
    Arab Spring (or Winter)
    Class Warfare
    Pepper Spray

    The rest of these ain't phrases, but whatevs:


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