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A Deliciously Rich Year for Language (nom nom!)

By Christine Lindberg


Popular culture . . .

In 2010, much of our uneasy fascination turned from zombie banks to plain old zombies. Well, maybe not “plain old.” It’s been a phenomenal year for zombies, who have commanded huge markets in the entertainment industry and a seemingly insatiable fan base.

As zombies roamed the planet, another breed of “outsiders”—nerds and geeks—continued to transcend the “lowliness” assigned to them in the 1950s. Just a generation ago, the word gleek (a fan of TV’s Glee) would have been considered a putdown, but now it is more a term of affection and is wholly embraced by the gleeks themselves.

One of television’s most familiar out-of-step characters will be missed when Michael Scott exits The Office at the end of this season, leaving us to wonder if there’s anyone else who can make the totally resistible phrase “that’s what she said” so irresistible?

Irresistible food is the subject of countless hours of cable TV broadcasting, and the latest mantra associated with the tasty and the tantalizing is akin to “yum yum,” but is even more reminiscent of one cookie-loving blue denizen of Sesame Street (we just know you’ve heard CM lost in an “om nom nom nom” moment)—so salivate when you say nom nom!

And cover your ears when you go to a South African soccer match. It was a worldwide phenomenon when the vuvuzela left its blaring mark on the 2010 World Cup. In the US, this deafening horn may now be the most widely known thing to come out of international soccer since Pelé.

Fans of America’s national pastime discovered their own phenomenon in 2010 when Major League Baseball introduced TagOramic. Through the technology of panoramic photography, integrated Facebook support, and “tag” icons, attendees of games are finding themselves in the zoomed-in photos and tagging themselves for subsequent viewing and sharing with friends. Tagging is not exactly new to Facebook users, but baseball has widened the field (so to speak!), and at Oxford, we’re watching this specific sense of “tag,” which may well gain a place in the dictionary.

Technology . . .

Modern popular culture is so deeply entwined in technology that it’s often difficult to find the line between the two. Our selections of retweet and webisode as NOAD Word of the Year  finalists are good examples. But the more our day-to-day lives involve some form (or many forms) of “connectivity,” the more vulnerable we are to the nefarious element that lurks in the recesses of our electronic universe. It’s no wonder that the technical terms to gain recognition through increased use during 2010 include clickjacking (the technique of concealing an undesirable website link behind a legitimate one), cybercasing (the use of personal information provided online to determine the most opportune time to rob a home or business), and scareware (unethical software that claims to detect computer viruses, and then urges the user to purchase [typically fake] virus protection). And we can’t overlook zombie computers, whose owners are unaware that their machines have been taken over by a hacker or virus—definitely not as entertaining as watching a video of villagers taken over by the walking dead!

Environment . . .

Thanks to the disastrous BP oil-spill, top kill made our list of WOTY finalists. Sadly it is only one among an unfortunate rundown of related scientific terms that the non-scientific community became aware (or at least reminded) of. To be sure, it was difficult in 2010 not to be instructed in the details of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), tar balls, blowout preventers, and cement plugs.

Economy . . .

The economic concerns of 2009 did not vaporize. And neither did public distrust of the banking industry. Resurrected from its roots in the 1930s, the term bankster (banker + gangster) has made an understandable comeback. The word is a bit punny and funny, but trying to bear up in a double-dip economy has been less than fun for too many.

Politics . . .

The midterm elections held on November 2 were preceded by months of the campaign patter that voters have come to expect ever since 1840, when William Henry Harrison (“Old Tip”) propelled himself into the White House with unprecedented electioneering. (Martin Van Buren was pretty much laid to rest by such ditties as “Old Tip, he wore a homespun coat, he had no ruffled shirt: wirt-wirt! / But Matt, he has the golden plate, and he’s a little squirt: wirt-wirt!”)

It would seem that 170 years later, partisan jabs continue to prompt campaign jargon. After years of being rankled by such Democratic sentiment as “Bush Won, US Nothing,” the political right enjoyed a number of recent campaign moments with suggestive references to Woe-bama.

Of course, NOAD’s selection of refudiate as its 2010 Word of the Year puts the spotlight on political celeb Sarah Palin’s presumably inadvertent blending of “refute” and “repudiate.” We are particularly fascinated that the interest in the word itself rapidly eclipsed the content Palin was conveying when she used “refudiate” in certain Twitter messages.

In 2010, New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, Carl Paladino, did not win his race, but he, too, has joined the ranks of those whose campaign vocabulary made us take notice. He ran as the unintimidatable choice for governor, and although the term gained some attention as a made-up, or nonce, word, it is logically constructed from un-, intimidate, and -able, and therefore means just what Paladino intended: “unable to be intimidated.” It may not roll easily off the lips, but the word has been used by others. In July 2009, it was featured in a noun sense when the popular Animal Planet series Whale Wars aired the episode “The Unintimidatables.”

Many New York voters may not have felt all that unintimidatable when their familiar levers behind drawn curtains had vanished in favor of the new paper ballot, a far cry from the drop-in-a-box paper ballots that New Yorkers were the first to adopt in 1889. Today, this new version is fed into an electronic scanner, making the whole process a little “too modern” for some voters, and making the term “paper ballot” ripe for dictionary clarification.

A recent addition to ballots across the country were candidates representing and/or supported by the Tea Party. This conservative political movement, noted for its anti-government protests, gained appreciable momentum during 2010, and even inspired the establishment of an alternative movement, the Coffee Party USA. (It’s anybody’s guess which beverage of choice may next emerge into a movement come 2011. Ovaltine, perhaps?)

Senior lexicographer Christine A. Lindberg is the principal content editor of Oxford’s American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Part of the original OUP US Dictionaries Program established in Connecticut in 1997, she currently works from her office in the Leatherstocking Region of New York State. Listen to a podcast with her here.


Recent Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oxford Journals(OUP) and Zachary H Hooper, Lauren. Lauren said: A look back at language this year http://bit.ly/bT3odH (and no, this post isn't just about "refudiate") [...]

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