ADS Word of the Year: Bailout

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Reporting live from San Francisco, where the American Dialect Society is holding its annual meeting in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America… In a year overshadowed by the financial crisis, the ADS has voted for bailout as its Word of the Year for 2008. As usual, it was a standing-room-only event, with ADS-ers, LSA-ers, and members of the public jamming the conference room to take part in the lighthearted selection process.

There was a certain predictability to the victory of bailout (I had named it the frontrunner in my early nomination list), given the dominance of the word in the national discourse. It's certainly not a new word — I've found examples of the noun in its financial sense from 1939 and of the verb bail out from 1932, while the earlier aviatory sense goes as far back as 1928 for the noun and 1925 for the verb. But the ADS WOTY selection doesn't have to be a new word, just newly prominent, and there's no doubt that bailout achieved great prominence in the final months of '08.

Bailout beat out Barack Obama, which was put into nomination not as a name per se (though the American Name Society did pick Barack Hussein Obama as its Name of the Year). Rather it was nominated as a combining form, since both Barack and Obama have been used for countless neologisms this past year, from Barack-star to Obamanos (that's a blend of Obama and Spanish vámonos). Two other politically oriented terms, lipstick on a pig and change, were runners-up.

You can read about the voting in the main WOTY category, as well as all the subcategories, in the official press release here. I was pleased that my nomination in the "Most Likely to Succeed" category, shovel-ready, emerged triumphant after some last-minute lobbying. I'm also fond of the choices for "Most Creative" (recombobulation area: what Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport calls the area where passengers get reorganized after passing through security) and "Most Euphemistic" (scooping technician: a person whose job it is to pick up dog poop).

[Update, Jan. 11: Now presenting the video experience!]


  1. Lazar said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 11:45 pm

    Once I facetiously referred to fast food workers as "rapid culinary technicians". You're all free to use it.

  2. Mark P said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

    I had never heard of shovel-ready. It sounds like a term that policy wonks use, and maybe reporters who want to sound like policy wonks. Maybe I would have run across it if I had read more newspaper stories about state construction projects. On the other hand, I don't think there are that many state construction programs around these days.

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    Mark P: Try a Google News Search for shovel-ready if you want to take a gander at a couple thousand recent examples in the media. It spread like wildfire starting around the first week of December (though I've found citations back to 1995). I think I can safely predict you're going to be hearing an awful lot about shovel-readiness in '09.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 12:53 am

    What in the world is "the Spanish vámanos"?

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    Sorry, Coby. I meant vámonos, of course. Corrected.

  6. Allison said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 2:08 am

    I feel a little protective of 2008 – summing it up with "Bailout" seems kind of mean. Other stuff happened. Do we have to dwell on that part? Poor 2008.

  7. Sili said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 6:28 am

    Once I facetiously referred to fast food workers as "rapid culinary technicians". You're all free to use it.

    It's still easier to just call them English majors.

  8. JimG said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    Is that bailout as in emptying (e.g., as the water out of a boat or the honeypot out the window), getting the object persons out of jail until trial in court, or ejection from a vehicle in flight? Or does it mean to insulate the object person from the legitimate consequences of bad actions, said insulation to come at the expense of people who behaved properly?
    /curmudgeon mode off

  9. Donna said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    If what you say is true, that "lipstick on a pig" and "change" were runners up, then maybe you should consider changing the timing of your poll to see if it becomes a bell-weather for election results.

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