2004 Words of the Year

It seems as if every language publication, web site, and organization comes out with its list of words of the year around this time of year. So, why should we be any different? What follows is a selection of words and phrases that came to the fore in this past year. The selection criterion was simply that the term be important in the past year. These are not necessarily terms that were coined in 2004, and in fact, only one term on the list was actually coined this past year. They are listed in alphabetical order and we have made no attempt to rank which of them is the most emblematic of the year.

The list is dominated by one theme, the war in Iraq. This was the most significant event of the year and many of the words and phrases that kept popping up in the media dealt with this issue. Given this, the list appears a bit grim, but so were the events of the year. Running a distant second is the US presidential election. After that, there are a smattering of terms dealing with other issues, a few more light-hearted, others not so much.

So without further ado, here are the Wordorigins.org 2004 Words of the Year:

avian flu, n., Type A influenza, a type of influenza virus that is passed from birds to humans, also bird flu, cf. swine flu; avian, adj., pertaining to birds, from the Latin avis meaning bird, 1870; flu, n., clipping of influenza, 1839; influenza, n., an acute respiratory disease caused by a type of myxovirus, from the Italian word meaning influence, 1743. In Italian the word had an additional meaning, dating to the early 16th century, of an outbreak or epidemic of a disease, from the belief that the stars had influence over human diseases. In popular usage, the word influenza is often applied to any number of respiratory disorders. Fear of an avian flu outbreak persisted throughout 2004 and late in the year, shortages of flu vaccines in the US were a cause for concern among many.

battleground state, n., in a US presidential contest, a state that both candidates have a reasonable chance to win, a state that is in play. “Just for the record, Missouri is also a ‘battleground state’ so we’re seeing a lot of Clinton ads—as well as a lot of Clinton (Bill and Hillary) and Gore.” (bit.listserv.politics, 11 Oct 1992). While not a new term, the 2004 US presidential election concentrated on just a handful of battleground states, the others firmly in one camp or the other. Also swing state.

blog, n. & v., an internet web site consisting of regular (often daily) updates of news, gossip, commentary, and links to other web sites, to maintain such a web site, short for web log, from 1999. “For those keeping score on blog commentary from outside the blog community.” 28 May 1999, peterme.com (in OED3). Blog has given rise to many variant forms, most notably blogger (1999), blogging (1999) and blogosphere (2002), the totality of all blogs, the culture and world of blogging. While not a new term in 2004, this year saw the term and phenomenon recognized by mainstream media and culture.

Curse, The, prop.n., the supernatural force said to be keeping the Boston Red Sox from winning the World Series, esp. for losing the seventh and deciding game of the series, which they did in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986. The curse allegedly dates to 1920 when owner Harry Frazee traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Until 2004, the Red Sox had not won the Series since 1918. Also called The Curse of the Bambino. The use of curse to describe the Red Sox’s fate dates to at least 1986.

enemy combatant, n., an individual who takes up arms against a nation during war, originally used as a neutral or inclusive term to avoid categorizing someone as a soldier, insurgent, terrorist, etc. Since 2001, it has been used to blur or avoid making the distinction between a lawful combatant, who has certain rights under the laws of war, and an unlawful combatant, who does not.

exit poll, n., an unofficial survey of voters as they leave the polling place, used to predict the results of the election, 1980. In the 2004 US presidential race, exit polls falsely predicted Kerry would win by a large margin.

flip flop, n. & v., a reversal of a political position, to reverse positions on a political issue. The term has been in US political slang since at least 1971. The use of flop in this sense dates to 1880. John Kerry was repeatedly accused of being a flip-flopper by Republicans in 2004.

gay marriage, n., a legally sanctioned homosexual union, from at least 1984. In earlier use to refer to long-lasting cohabitation by members of the same sex. Gay marriage was a major US political issue in 2004, with Massachusetts becoming the first state to legalize them and local officials in many other states performing gay marriage ceremonies (later all declared legally invalid).

Green Zone, prop.n., the area of Baghdad housing the US civilian and military authorities of Iraq. A relatively, but not completely, safe area in that city, 2003. The year 2004 saw US officials increasingly restricted to the Green Zone for safety and sporadic attacks within the Green Zone itself.

humanitarian catastrophe, n., a disaster where political forces prevent the adequate distribution of food, water, or medical supplies and results in many more deaths than should have happened, since at least 1992. In 2004, the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan had become a humanitarian catastrophe.

hurricane, n., a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of 73 mph (65 knots, 12 on the Beaufort Scale) or greater. 2004 saw four major hurricanes make landfall in the state of Florida, causing extensive destruction.

insurgent, n., one who revolts against the constituted authority of a state, 1765, after the Latin insurgere, to rise up. 2004 saw isolated attacks against US and Iraqi authorities in Iraq develop into a full blown insurgency.

intelligence, n., knowledge of events or situations, esp. those of political or military import, the obtaining of such information, the agencies and their staffs engaged in collecting and analyzing such information, c.1450, from the French, ultimately from the Latin intelligentia, meaning understanding. The latter half of 2004 saw much political debate on how to reform and restructure US intelligence in the wake of 9/11 and the discovery of no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the putative cause for the war in that country.

martyr, n., a person who dies or greatly suffers in a cause for which they believe deeply, esp. a religious cause, to die or cause the death of such a person. Usage dates to the Old English period, from the Latin and ultimately the Greek word for witness. In 2004, martyr was the word most often selected to translate the Arabic word shahid, which is used to denote suicide bombers, but which also has the senses normally associated with the English word.

political capital, n., the power to influence policy and decisions derived from popular support, this US political term dates to 1842. The end of 2004 saw George W. Bush preparing to expend the political capital he garnered from his election victory on behalf of the issues and policies he wants passed by Congress in the coming year.

quagmire, n., a situation from which is difficult to extract oneself, 1775, from the literal sense of a bog or swamp, quag + mire. Quag, meaning a bog or marshy place, has cognates in Dutch and Low German, and appears in the 16th century. It is related to quake, to shake, which can be traced back to the Old English cwacian, but which does not have cognates in the other Germanic languages. Mire, which also means a swamp or bog, is from the Scandinavian myr and appears in the 13th century. The term quagmire was used in the Vietnam era to refer to that war and was again applied in 2004 to the situation in Iraq, evoking not only a swamp but that earlier conflict as well.

roadside bomb, n., an explosive device placed alongside a road in order to destroy or damage vehicles and their occupants as they pass, 1979. Roadside bombs became a standard weapon of the insurgents in Iraq in 2004.

sovereignty, n., of a nation, the quality of self-rule, free of the dominion of others, the exercise of supreme political power over a territory, c.1340, after the Norman-French sovereyneté. The passing of political power from the US occupation to the Iraqi provisional government in 2004 was an important step in returning that country’s sovereignty.

steroid, n., a class of organic compounds containing a 17-carbon, 4-ring system that, among other effects, builds muscle mass and affects sexual characteristics in humans, used by athletes to increase strength, 1936. 2004 saw professional baseball rocked with scandal with the revelation that NY Yankee Jason Giambi and San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds had taken steroids.

stop loss, adj., US military term for an order or policy that prevents servicemen and women from leaving the armed forces due to expiration of enlistments, retirement, etc. Since at least 1991. By 2004, morale in the US armed forces was strained due to the continuation of the stop-loss policy that kept soldiers in uniform past their original discharge dates.

swift boat, n., a fast, shallow-draft naval vessel used for patrolling coasts and rivers, esp. those boats that patrolled the Mekong River during the Vietnam War, mid-to-late 1960s. The Vietnam-era naval term came back into vogue in 2004 due to John Kerry’s service on a swift boat during that war.

tsunami, n., a series of large waves caused by an earthquake or other underwater geological disturbance, from the Japanese, tsu (harbor) + nami (waves), in English use since 1897. Often also popularly called a tidal wave (1878), but this latter term is technically imprecise as it can also refer to the large, but regular, tidal surge that occurs in some harbors and shorelines (1830). In December 2004 a tsunami, caused by a large (Richter 9.0) earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, devastated nations around the Eastern rim of the Indian Ocean. The death toll as of this writing is 127,000 and climbing.

vet, v., to investigate the suitability of a person nominated for a position of trust and confidence, 1904, from a late-19th century sense of having racehorses examined by a veterinarian. At the end of 2004, Bernard Kerik, the nominee for the post of Secretary of Homeland Security withdrew his name from consideration after a string of embarrassing revelations about his past. The White House had not adequately vetted him.

wardrobe malfunction, n., an accidental or pseudo-accidental exposure of the female breast, 2004. “I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable,” Justin Timberlake, 1 Feb 2004, after exposing singer Janet Jackson’s breast during the Superbowl half-time show.

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