Words and years

December 04, 2013|By John McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

As if living through the past year were not trial enough to endure, we are about to be subjected to everyone's year-in-review retrospective. Among the year-end rituals, one of the more light-hearted is the various word nerd efforts to establish a Word of the Year. 

First out of the gate, the Oxford University Press annunces that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is selfie. Not to be outdone, Merriam-Webster proclaims science the word of the year.*

It is far from clear to me how these nominations and elections of Words of the Year are carried out, and an outsider may well wonder whether any thimblerigging has gone on behind closed doors. But I once saw such an operation carried out. 

In January 2010, during a period when I was [cough] at liberty and at large [cough], I was invited to attend some sessions of the American Dialect Society as it met in Baltimore. Among its activities, carried out with the highest mock-seriousness, was the vote on the Word of the Year, coupled on that occasion with the vote on the Word of the Decade. 

Now by some process not divulged (leaving open that thimblerigging possibility) the members of the learned society had winnowed their list of nominees to a manageable handful. 

But then, in a session presided over jovially by Allan Metcalf, the actual vote, the determining vote, was open to everyone who happened to be on hand, everyone in the room. I voted. Anyone who had wandered in off the street could have voted. Our collective choice of tweet as Word of the Year and google (lowercase) as Word of the Decade was to that extent as democratic as the operation of the language itself. 

The ADS will be meeting in Minneapolis in January.** Among other enterprises, they will select the Word of the Year for 2013 from the nominees that have been submitted through their website. Already the suspense builds. 

It is, of course, a stunt. Stunts are intended to draw attention, and with Words of the Year, everybody's getting into the act. (Not that I necessarily deplore all stunts. National Grammar Day is a stunt, and the Grammarnoir serial I write each year leading up to March 4 is also a stunt.*** If you like, I can comb through my "In a word" feature and choose which of this year's words of the week I would make my Word of the Year.)

But the really interesting thing, once the balloons have fallen from the ceiling and the custodial staff has swept up the glitter and confetti, will be to look ten years, twenty years later, to see which vogue words have made a place for themselves in the language and which have faded away like the call of a mourning dove at sunset. 

*Oh, would that that work had the power to stop up the mouths of obnoxious cranks like Jenny McCarthy spreading bogus science far and wide, to the hazard of public health. 

**Minneapolis in January. What were they thinking? 

***Are you keen for Grammarnoir 6: Grammar Never Takes a Vacation? Can you feel the suspense building?

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