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American Dialect Society names the lexiest creations of the year

February 2012

Since 1990, the American Dialect Society, or ADS, has paid homage to the most sublime, lexiest creations of each year—new words that grace our lexicon annually.

These words have been drawn from a number of varied categories. For example, “gate rape” (defined as “pejorative term for invasive new airport pat-down procedures”) reigned supreme in the “most outrageous” category in 2010, and “waterboarding” won in the “most euphemistic” category in 2006.

Each year, a “word of the year” is chosen and, as one would expect, the world of technology has provided us with the dominant neologisms, such as app (2010), tweet (2009), Y2K (1999), e-, as in e-mail (1998).

Conclusive evidence of this trend arrived in 2010 when “google” was voted the word of the decade.

At an ADS convention in Portland, Oregon, last month, it was decided that the word of the year for 2011 was “occupy.” It was felt that “occupy” became an emblem for the whole protest movement.

Ben Zimmer, language columnist at the Boston Globe, stated “occupy” in “just a few months took on another life and moved in new and unexpected directions, thanks to a national and global movement.” I do not agree that
“occupy” is being used in a distinct sense. Starting in the 14th century, it had a sense of taking possession of something by force. By 1920, the verb was used to mean to gain access to a piece of land or building without authority as a form of protest.

And if I see another dumb joke on Facebook, such as “I’m gonna occupy a beer from the fridge now,” I’m going to seriously unfriend some people.

Before dismissing the society’s choice, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one particularly shocking sense of “occupy” that has fallen from our vernacular. From the 15th century to the beginning of the 19th century, “occupy” was used as an euphemism for engaging in sex. In John Florio’s Worlde of Wordes written in 1598, there is reference to “raskalie whores in Italy, who cause them to be occupide one and thirtie times by one and thirtie several base raskalie companions.”

My favourite category this year was the “most creative” section. Here we sampled “bunga bunga,” referring to the sex parties associated with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Its etymology is somewhat murky, however a German actress claims that “bunga bunga” originated as Berlusconi’s nickname for her, and eventually morphed into his term for wild parties with young girls.

But the winner in this category was “Mellencamp,” describing a woman who has aged out of being a cougar. Pop music enthusiasts will discern that the term is named after pop singer John Cougar Mellencamp.

Indeed, eponymous neologisms were popular this year. To “Mubarak” is “to farcically hold on to power,” and if you’re “Mubaraked” to your chair it might mean you’re stuck in it. Another eponymous term that emerged this year was “Tebowing,” lampooning the praying pose of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Given its geopolitical importance, I was disappointed that the term “Arab Spring,” referring to popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes in the Arab world was not one of the nominees for word of the year. Mind you, it was runner-up in the “most likely to succeed” genre. The winner here was the word “cloud” referencing online space for the large-scale processing and storage of data.

Another term in this category that I believe will have legs is “tiger mom,” which refers to an extremely strict parent.

Lest you feel that Canada was given short shrift because neither the verb “to Harper” (to cut off debate) or “to McKay” (to use a military helicopter instead of a taxi while on vacation) did not register with American
Dialect voters, I am proud to say that the impetus for the occupy movement had a Canadian genesis. It was on July 13 that the Vancouver-based anti-consumer magazine Adbusters suggested online that people “Occupy Wall Street” in lower Manhattan on Sept 17.

The movement went viral and, thanks to the Canucks, the ADS had its word of the year.



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