Words of the Year: 2008

Here at Wordorigins.org we don’t select a single term as “word of the year,” but rather we provide a list of terms that were representative of the past year. Here is the selection for 2008:

age-doping, n., the falsification of an athlete’s birth records to meet a sporting event’s age requirements, as alleged of Chinese gymnasts in the 2008 Olympics.

bailout, n. & v., rescue of a failing business by the government, esp. the government payments to the banking and financial industry in late 2008.

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belfry / bats in the belfry

The word belfry, believe it or not, originally had nothing to do with bells. Belfry is from the Old French berfroi, meaning a wooden siege tower. The word first appears in English c.1300 in the romance Kyng Alisaunder found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 622:

Alisaunder and his folk…Fast assaileden her walle Wiþ berefrei.
(Alexander and his army…fast assailed her wall with a belfry.)

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bats in the belfry

See belfry.


The term booby meaning a stupid person dates to about 1599. From Patient Grissil, a comedic play written 1599-1603:

Then, mage a pooby fool of Sir Owen, indeed. God’s plude, shall!

It probably comes from the Spanish bobo, also meaning a foolish or stupid person, as well as being the name of the type of bird—which are slow, stupid, and easy to kill. It is sometimes suggested that it comes from the German bube, which is sometimes used in the same sense, but the Lower German form, which would be closer to English, is boeve or boef, which makes the connection implausible.1

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balling the jack

No sooner were we out of town than Eddie started to ball that jack ninety miles an hour out of sheer exuberance.

--Jack Kerouac, On The Road, 19571

Balling the jack is a US slang term meaning to go fast or make haste. The phrase comes from the name of a lively 1913 ragtime dance tune, Ballin’ the Jack, by Jim Burris and Chris Smith.2 The phrase appears in the lyrics of several songs of that decade and by the mid-1920s was being used in general speech, especially among railroadmen, as in this citation recorded c.1925 in Barbour County, West Virginia:

The car certainly did ball the jack.3

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The origin of the word gonzo is inextricably linked to writer Hunter S. Thompson, famed for his style dubbed gonzo journalism. Gonzo is a highly subjective, first-person style, characterized by distorted and exaggerated facts. Thompson first used the word in print in the 11 November 1971 issue of Rolling Stone:

But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.

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Book Review: Garner on Language and Writing

Garner on Language and Writing: Selected Essays and Speeches; Bryan A. Garner; Chicago: American Bar Association, 2008; $59.95.

Bryan Garner is author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and editor of recent editions of Black’s Law Dictionary, as such he is one of the leading experts on style, usage, and writing, especially legal writing. This latest work is a collection of essays, speeches, letters, book reviews and the like on the subject of legal writing. For what it is, it is excellent, but one should not make more of it than what it is; its utility is limited in scope.

First, this is a book about legal writing; it is for lawyers. While there are lessons in it that are useful to any writer (e.g., the importance of clarity and brevity, his essays on Pun Control and Cruel and Unusual English which address effective punning), most of the book is rather specialized and is focused on how to write good legal briefs. Non-lawyers will have to sift through a lot of dross to find the nuggets that are valuable to them. Even his section on English Grammar and Usage, which might have general applicability, is almost exclusively devoted to examples from the legal field. And given the book’s price tag, few non-lawyers will want to pay even a discounted price.

Second, it is a book of essays, not a reference. This is not a style or usage guide like GMAU. That’s not to say you can’t learn a lot from Garner on Language and Writing, just that it is not a quick-reference guide. This book is to be read at leisure and the principles applied generally and over time.

But if you are a lawyer or otherwise engaged in the profession of legal writing, this book is a must-have and it would make an excellent text for a law school course on writing. From effective use of legal jargon, to how to write a brief that will persuade a judge, to how to hold a writing seminar in your firm, Garner’s essays cover the spectrum of legal writing. It’s a book that every law school student should read and every lawyer re-read annually.

Book Review: Damp Squid

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare; Jeremy Butterfield; Oxford University Press, December 2008; $19.95.

Butterfield’s Damp Squid is an exploration of linguistics and lexicography for the layperson. It’s light and entertaining, but at the same time addresses how professional language researchers go about their business and in so doing explodes some of the misconceptions people have about our language.

If there is a negative criticism of the book it is that it lacks a coherent, overall theme. It has an overall topic, that of explaining what linguists do, but not a theme. But this isn’t too serious a criticism; the book is effective as a potpourri of linguistic information. This value is reinforced by the style of short essays and frequent use of inset boxes, lists, and diagrams that keep the reader’s interest. This is not a book for in-depth examination of the state of English linguistics, but for the casual word lover it is instructive and fun.

The book’s chapters address the following topics, which show the breadth of the subject material that Butterfield is covering:

  • Introduction: an explanation of corpus linguistics
  • Size matters: how many words in the English language?
  • Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English: etymology
  • Beware of heard: why spelling varies?
  • Which is to be master: the importance of context in meaning
  • Words of a feather: word groupings, what words are found with other words
  • Cats and dogs: idioms
  • Grammar that can govern even kings: what is grammar?
  • Style wars: pet peeves about language
  • Epilogue: a brief historical overview of dictionaries

For the casual word lover or for someone just getting interested in linguistics and language, this is an excellent choice. Those engaged in a more serious pursuit of language study can probably skip it.

OED December Update: ray-gun to reality TV

The Oxford English Dictionary just released its latest quarterly update. This quarter covers the words from ray-gun to reality TV, plus a few updated and new terms from elsewhere in the alphabet.

This is more than just a quarterly update, however; it’s another quarter milestone, too. With this update, the new edition of the OED is 25% complete. The new third edition now contains 263,917 entries with 741,153 senses, illustrated by 2,931,547 quotations.

Notable new or updated words in this update include:

  • ew, int., an expression of disgust
  • plus-one, n., a person who accompanies another to an event as that person’s nominated guest, but who has not been specifically invited
  • podcasting, n., use of the Internet to make available digital recordings of broadcasts
  • Rashomon, n., something resembling or suggestive of Kurosawa’s 1951 film of that name, esp. in being characterized by multiple conflicting or differing versions, perspectives, or interpretations

Book Review: The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd Edition; Christine A. Lindberg, ed.; Oxford University Press, November 2008; $40.00.

I’m generally not a big fan of thesauruses. They’re open to misuse by inexperienced or bad writers and those that follow the Roget taxonomic schema are impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime learning the Roget system. (My aversion to thesauruses may, in part, be due to being bewildered by the Roget system as a youth.)

But I’m willing to make an exception for the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Here we have a thesaurus that is actually a useful tool to both the budding and the experienced writer.

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