“Word of the Year” Mania!
It’s always an exciting time at OUP when the New Oxford American Dictionary‘s Word of the Year is selected. As announced here on Monday, this year’s choice is locavore, meaning “a person who endeavors to eat only locally produced foods.” The word may very well strike a resonant chord for anyone who has mulled over how many miles a bunch of bananas has logged before it gets to the local grocery store. But unlike some of our previous Words of the Year — most recently, podcast in 2005 and carbon neutral in 2006 — locavore is very much “on the cusp,” not yet firmly established in widespread usage, despite its great potential. That means Oxford lexicographers will continue to monitor its progress to see if it eventually warrants inclusion in the next edition of NOAD.
One sign that locavore isn’t quite settled in the English lexicon is that there are still arguments about how to spell it. Locavore is the original form, as coined by Jessica Prentice, one of four San Francisco women who challenged Bay Area residents in 2005 to eat only food grown within a 100-mile radius. As similar regional initiatives popped up in other parts of the country, some groups (especially in New England) chose to spell the term localvore with an extra l in the middle. The localvore spelling might be seen as avoiding unwanted associations with the Spanish word for “crazy” (masc. loco, fem. loca), as well as foregrounding the “localness” of local eating. But as I learned this week, Ms. Prentice had her own reasons for choosing locavore over localvore (which you can read about here). Which word will ultimately win out, locavore or localvore? Perhaps the “local eating” movement is big enough to accommodate both variants. Or who knows, maybe a dark horse will emerge for those dissatisfied with the two choices. Locatarian, anyone? How about proxivore?
Lexicographers, you see, do not possess a crystal ball that can predict which words will ultimately flourish in the linguistic ecosystem. All they can reasonably do is try to pinpoint which words have potential and observe how they spread (or fail to). A look at the runner-up list for Word of the Year reveals an array of such promising candidates. (And if you want to see even more, check out the words that didn’t quite make the cut on Dictionary Evangelist, the blogging home of Erin McKean, OUP’s chief consulting editor for American dictionaries.)
Some of the runners-up have institutional support of one sort or another that might help them in the long run: the Pentagon continues to order MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) to protect troops in Iraq, while scientists publish papers on the colony collapse disorder mysteriously afflicting honeybees. Some are boosted by zealous subcultures: the digerati are partial to bacn (“email you want, but not right now”), while indie film buffs approvingly mumble about mumblecore (the latest genre of low-budget, improvisational, youth-driven movies). And some words might have already had their moment in the pop-cultural sun. Will we remember the verb tase, a back-formation from Taser, now that videos of the “Don’t tase me, bro” incident have fallen out of constant circulation?
At OUP, we’ll keep tracking the development of these words, using the Oxford English Corpus and other tools at our disposal. And if their usage justifies it, the new words will get included in future editions of NOAD and other Oxford dictionaries. For now, though, we’ll just sit back and savor a year of wondrous words.
Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here