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What’s the good word this year?

Wednesday, 30 December 2009 - 11:38pm IST | Agency: dna

Men-of-the-moment, the Internet and current affairs defined the buzzwords for 2009, writes Kannan Somasundaram

Word of the year
Midway through 2009, a US internet-monitoring company announced that ‘Web 2.0’ had become the millionth word in the English language. That event should have made the year as momentous for English as the year 1969 — which produced Neil Armstrong’s giant hyperbole — is for humanity’s aspiration to annex space. 

But the declaration about the millionth word, made by the Texas-based Global Language Monitor (GLM), provoked unnumbered smirks from lexicographers. One of them, Jesse Sheidlower, the Oxford English Dictionary’s editor-at-large (North America), has pointed out that English has about a million named species of insects alone.

Forcing words into lists of year-end notability is also problematic because buzzwords reflect a social group’s constantly changing, and defiantly local, political and social concerns. However, the GLM’s top word of 2009, Twitter, was provided a secure niche in India by Shashi Tharoor, the Union minister of state for external affairs.

Horny word of the year
First, in September, Tharoor referred to airlines’ economy section as ‘cattle class’. The bovine metaphor was used even as the UPA government was trying to milk advantage from its exercise to promote personal austerity among ministers and bureaucrats. He has now angered his boss, foreign affairs minister SM Krishna, by tweeting about the government’s proposal to make visa rules more stringent.  At any rate, though ‘cattle class’ stampeded into public discussions, one TV channel demonstrated, through vox-pop interviews, that the general public was clueless about the expression; it has been in use for more than 25 years. 

“The earliest reference to ‘cattle class’ in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1983,” said David Crystal, the celebrated UK linguist and author of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language. As for 2009’s top words, Crystal — who has written many acclaimed books on English, including How Language Works — said in an exclusive interaction with DNA that most of the new coinages came from just two sources. “I think the two biggest themes that generated lexical innovation in 2009 were Twitter and Obama,” Crystal said. “Both have generated dozens of creations, such as: Tweeps, Twitterati, Twitterature, Twitterverse, Twittersphere, Twitterhea, Twitterscore, and Tweetaholic.”
Obama has produced Obamaland, Obamanomics, Obamalypse, Obamania, Obamafication, Obamese, and Obamasphere, Crystal said.

“Most of these will disappear in due course, I imagine,” he said. “It will all depend on how long-lasting the phenomena they express are. But, in terms of word formation, they show that the traditional linguistic processes (such as suffixation and blending) are alive and well.

Sneakiest word of the year
The most vigorous verb of 2009 could well be Salahi, named after Tareq and Michaele Salahi who gatecrashed a White House dinner hosted for prime minister Manmohan Singh. “For example, you could ‘salahi’ a party,” said Jack Lynch, the editor of Johnson’s Dictionary and the author of The Lexicographers Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park. “It will be difficult to predict if these new words will enter dictionaries,” Lynch said. “Many factors play a role in determining the survival of a word.” He agreed that politics was a key influence. 

Superpower expletive of 2009 
The proof of the sway of politics can be found in US president Barack Obama’s unembarrassed use of ‘screw up’. His party was ‘salahied’ because people screwed up, he has said. In February, his attempt to appoint Tom Daschle as the secretary of health and human services was defeated. It turned out that Daschle had not paid his taxes. “I’m frustrated with myself, with our team... I’m here on television saying I screwed up,” Obama told a TV channel. The presidential invective has drawn indulgent tut-tutting, but when Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, used words like “betcha”, blogosphere ranters dismissed her as a yokel from the icy outback. Obama is working the linguistic hypocrisy with extravagant élan.

“Obama may have been told to be informal, except on formal occasions,” Lynch said. “His advisers probably fear that he will be called pretentious otherwise.” 

Words that the year melted down
Although ‘recession’, ‘meltdown’, and ‘downturn’ did half the headline-writers’ work in 2009, they have made it to few Top Words lists. The GLM, for example, features ‘stimulus’ in the fourth position, and ‘bonus’ in the 12th, but has not accommodated any of the terms that directly describe the economic turmoil.

In a list compiled for the New York Times by Grant Barrett, an American lexicographer and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, ‘Great Recession’ is indeed included. It has been defined as: “A reference to the current economic downturn. Used at least a few times for every recession since 1980, but never with such vigour as now.”

Recession (or any related term) has not received a special entry on the New York Times list, on which Barrett worked with Mark Leibovich. However, you will find mancession (a recession that affects men more than women) on it. 

If Obamaesque, why not Kennedyesque?  
“There were many such coinages in Kennedy’s day,” Crystal said. “These coinages tend to disappear as times move on. It will be the same with Obama. The only difference with the Kennedy era is that we now have the Internet to preserve even the craziest coinages permanently.”

Will these words, like sexting, survive the e-blizzard of neologisms? “Words are brought to the fore by the ebb and flow of history,” Barrett told DNA. Other factors that popularise words, Barrett said, were “the rush and relaxation of culture, and by the grind and grit of the working world. If they stay useful, they stay used”.

Indeed, before the Internet let the world chat without reserve or formality, words seldom got their lists. But in 2009, words are enjoying as much yearend scrutiny as sex scandals and sports. (Of course, in the case of Tiger Woods, sex and sports join in unbreakable conjugal ecstasy.)

Coinage of the year
‘Conspicuous austerity’ was formulated by Shiv Visvanathan, one of India’s most distinguished sociologists, to explain our politicians’ willingness to heroically endure the hardship, horror, and humiliation of travelling cattle class with ordinary folks. The expression is an unbeatable description of our lawmakers’ showy self-mortification, and therefore qualifies to be the coinage of the year. As for cattle class, Visvanathan said, “I don’t think Tharoor meant any harm. The problem is that most Indians who take a flight think they are on another plane.”

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