2002 ADS Word of the Year

At its annual meeting in January, the American Dialect Society (ADS) selects its Word of the Year for the previous year. This word (or phrase) is a term that for whatever reason had special resonance in that year. The words and phrases selected are not necessarily new coinages (in fact they usually are not), but they are terms that have recently come to prominence. In addition to the Word of the Year, other categories of terms are also voted upon. This was the 13th year that the ADS has been honoring such words and phrases.

So this month, instead of our usual offering of a Word of the Month, we will take a look at the ADS nominations and selections for Word of the Year.

The ADS voting for 2002 Word of the Year was held in Atlanta on 3 January 2003. Some sixty-odd ADS members were on hand and voted. Their choice for 2002 Word of the Year, receiving 38 votes, was weapons of mass destruction and its abbreviation WMD. (If you will recall, this was A Way With Words selection for Word of the Month back in December.) This noun phrase refers to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and is often extended to radiological weapons. It is also used metaphorically to refer to other devices and actions that kill large numbers of people, albeit slowly through attrition. Landmines are sometimes referred to as weapons of mass destruction and recently Senator Carl Levin referred to the starvation of the North Korean people as a weapon of mass destruction. The term dates to 1937, originally referring to the bombing of cities from the air. It came into the jargon of the arms control community in the early 1960s and exploded into public consciousness this past year.

Honorable Mentions
Other nominees for 2002’s Word of the Year were:

Google, v., to search the Web using the search engine Google for information on a person or thing (11 votes). The verb came to prominence in 2002, but dates to at least 2000. The search engine was named after the mathematical term googol, with the spelling changed for trademark purposes.

Blog, n., clipping of web-log, a website of personal events, comments, and links (6 votes). The term dates to 2000. It is also used as verb meaning to create or maintain such a site.

Amber alert, n., public announcement of a missing child (4 votes). The term dates to 1996. It is named after Amber Hagerman, who had been abducted and killed while riding her bicycle in her Arlington, Texas neighborhood that year. It was thought that she might have been saved had there been a system in place to rapidly notify police and the public of the details of missing children.

Regime change, n., forced change in leadership of a country (3 votes). A jargon term in reference to Iraq, the term dates to 1998; although it can be found earlier in other contexts.

Special Categories
ADS also votes to give special notice to words in particular categories. The categories, winners, and nominees for 2002 are:

Most likely to succeed
: blog (30 votes). Other nominees were: Amber alert (20); Axis of _____ (8); and teen angstrel, an angst-ridden popular singer (1).

Most useful: google (verb) (60 votes). Other nominees (none received any votes) were: dataveillance, surveillance using computer data, a term that dates to 1989; the prefix war-, referring to hackers finding locations for unauthorized access to wireless computer networks, as in wardriving, driving around neighborhoods searching for wireless networks, or warchalking, marking of buildings where wireless access is available, the prefix dates to 2002 (from wardialing, the old hacker practice of dialing all phone numbers in an area in a search for computer connections, 1990); and my big fat ______, meaning like no other, extremely, a term popularized by the play and movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Most creative: Iraqnophobia, strong fear of Iraq (38 votes in a runoff), coined in a David Letterman monologue in August 1990 and revived this year. The other candidate in the runoff was walking piñata, a person subject to relentless criticism, the term dates to 1998 and came to prominence recently in reference to Trent Lott (25 votes). Other nominees in the first vote: dialarhoea, inadvertent dialing of a cell phone in a pocket or handbag (8); 201(k), a 401(k) retirement account ruined by stock losses (8); and apatheist, someone who either believes that God or gods exist but are not of any use or someone who does not care enough to make up their mind about the existence of a deity. This one dates to 1999 (7 votes).

Most unnecessary: wombanization, feminization, from Alexander Barnes’ The Book Read Backwards: The Deconstruction of Patriarchy and the Wombanization of Being (46 votes). Other nominees: Saddameter, meter on television showing daily likelihood of war with Iraq (13); virtuecrat, person both politically correct and morally righteous (10); black tide, large-scale oil pollution at sea (0).

Most outrageous: Neuticles, fake testicles for neutered pets, dates to 1995 (40 votes in a runoff). Other candidate in the runoff: grid butt, marks left on the buttocks by fishnet pantyhose (30). Other candidates in the first vote: sausage fest, slang term for a party with more males than females, dates to 1993 (7); diabulimia, loss of weight by a diabetic skipping insulin doses (3); Botox party, a party at which a physician injects guests with Botox (2); comprendo-challenged, unable to understand the U.S. Constitution (0).

Most euphemistic: regime change (38 votes). Other nominees: V-card, slang term for virginity, as in playing the V-card, 1999 (14); newater, sewage water purified and recycled into the fresh water system (7); unorthodox entrepreneur, a Vancouver term for a panhandler, prostitute, or drug dealer (4); Enronomics, fraudulent business and accounting practices (1); dirty bomb, conventional bomb laced with radioactive material, from 1993 (0).

In 2001, the special category Most Inspirational was created to incorporate Todd Beamer’s Let’s roll!, uttered just before attacking the hijackers of United Flight 93 on 11 September 2001. For 2002, President Bush’s embetterment as in the embetterment of mankind was proposed as justifying another Most Inspirational, but it was rejected 45 votes to 12. Another candidate for Most Inspirational was proposed, grid butt, the runner-up in the Most Outrageous category, but the chair, who favored embetterment, arbitrarily ruled it out of order. A category of Bushisms was suggested for future years.

Past WOTYs
While the ADS is a scholarly organization, the Word of the Year contest is strictly for fun. It is not a serious linguistic endeavor and the linguists of ADS do not have any special skill at predicting what words will succeed. Their track record in this regard is decidedly mixed. Last year the term 9-11 claimed both the Word of the Year and Most Likely to Succeed prizes and it looks as if the term is here to stay, at least as long as the events are in living memory. Often the Word of the Year is a term that aptly sums up major events of the year, but which may not have lasting currency in the language. The words are usually distinctly American in reference and usage, but this is appropriate given that it is the American Dialect Society.

Other past Words of the Year are:

Chad (2000), a word that represents the events of the last two months of the year well, but which is due to become a linguistic footnote due to technology change.

Y2K (1999), like chad it represents its year well, but had little future currency. In 1999, ADS also voted on Word of the Century, jazz, and Word of the Millennium, she. With a greater historical perspective, the significance of these last two choices is obvious.

e- (1998), which edged out sexual relations, as in “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” in a 31-28 run-off vote.

Millennium bug (1997), a term that would have a shelf life of two more years.

Mom (1996), as in soccer mom, waitress mom, and minivan mom. Soccer mom is still with us; the others are forgotten.

1995 was a tie between World Wide Web and Newt, a verb meaning to make aggressive changes as newcomer. The latter is from the name of the then Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. It spawned several short-lived words like Newt World Order and Newtspeak before they all died a quick and justified death. The World Wide Web has had a much more significant and lasting impact on all our lives than Newt Gingrich did.

1994 was also a tie, this time between cyber and morph, meaning to change shape. Both seem to have slipped into widespread usage rather unobtrusively.

Information Superhighway (1993). The thing survived and boomed; the name did not.

Not! (1992), it was trendy word that year.

Mother of all ____ (1991), again a phrase much used that year but not often afterwards.

Bushlips (1990), meaning insincere political rhetoric. Everyone remembers the quotation, “Read my lips. No new taxes,” but who remembers Bushlips?

The category of Most Likely to Succeed has also had mixed success itself. Seemingly successful predictions (the contest has not been in existence long enough to gauge success definitively) are DVD (1997), World Wide Web (1995) rollerblade (1991), and notebook PC (1990). These will probably remain with us at least as long as the technology in question is relevant.

Others have had mixed success. The Most Likely to Succeed for 2000 was muggle, which has not gained lasting currency outside the confines of the Harry Potter universe. In 1999 the winner of this category was dot-com—a term that has done better than the companies it represents. The term for 1998 was the prefix e-. While words like e-mail and e-commerce are still going strong, the prefix has largely ceased to be productive and is not generating new words. And in 1992 the term judged Most Likely to Succeed was snail mail. It is hanging in there, but seems to be fading.

And yet others judged likely to succeed are all but forgotten. 1996’s drive-by survives in the original drive-by shooting, but all the other slang senses like drive-by viewing and drive-by surgery are dead. Similarly Infobahn (1996), quotative (1993), and rightsizing (1990) are long since forgotten.

The full lists of choices and nominees for previous years, dating back to 1990, can be found on the ADS website, http://www.americandialect.org/woty.html.

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