Another Year...Another Word of the Year (and Decade)


Once a year, the Linguistic Society of America convenes in its annual conference, and at that meeting, the American Dialect Society votes on the "Word of the Year". And once the year, major news outlets in the U.S. announce this "word". For the record, this year the "Word of the Year" is tweet (i.e. sending a message on Twitter), and the "Word of the Decade" is Google (i.e. searching for something on Google).

I think both choices are entirely appropriate, and accurately reflect the rapid spread of different Internet technologies. Personally, I had never heard of Google until early January 2000 (before that it was all Alta Vista and Yahoo). And's a verb. Wow.

But I also had a more interesting revelation. The main criteria (or "criterion" for the prescriptivist crowd) for selecting a word is utter cultural saturation. The OUP Blog from the Oxford University Press states it thus when announcing their own choice for Word of the Year (unfriend):

"[Unfriend] has both currency and potential longevity," notes Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford's US dictionary program. "In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood ... Unfriend has real lex-appeal."

That's the obvious part, but for me the interesting part is that a really good "Word of the Year" has to be so ubiquitous it has already become a cliche (or cliché). The reason "tweet" is such a perfect choice to me is that its slightly ridiculous (and ever so slightly nauseating) to hear on a repeated bases...just like previous winners such as "soccer mom", "sub prime", "metrosexual" and "red state/blue state/purple state". The Word of the Year is almost like a yearbook photo, one that will be humorous to revisit a few decades from now.

Ironically, the promotion of a word as "Word of the Year" may almost be a sign that it's cresting the hype curve. When you hear a tech word like "tweet" hit the nightly news, you know that Twitter has both hit the mainstream and is about its lose its hip status with the cool tech crowd. If you're not a fan of tweeting, don't worry. I predict it will fade into the background of other communication tech like phones, voice mail and answering machines. At that time, I feel we will be using it much more sensibly than we do now - no more messages about eating fries being posted in public.

That's not to say that the "Word of the Year" isn't important. This type of popular culture phenomenon is something that is notoriously track the development of. Who was the first to say "unfriend" or "Google"? Was it a programmer or a teenager online? We will probably never know, but at least we will have a record of when it hit the airwaves.

Twenty years from now, we may indeed be still using words like "Google" and "unfriend", but they will have become truly embedded into the language, like Kleenexes, faxing and Fridgidaires. Well I better sign off and tweet this blog post now.

P.S. My favorite candidate this year wasn't one I heard much - Kanye (the act of interrupting someone's speech while he or she is in the spotlight...after Kanye West's moment at the MTV Awards). Alas it was not nearly used enough to merit "Word of the Year".