Knowing Geoff Nunberg's 2010 Word Of The Year

Graphic of "No" i i

The Year Of No: Geoff Nunberg declares "no" to be the 2010 word of the year. (In case you're curious, NPR wrote 1,640 articles featuring the word "no" in the past year.) Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR
Graphic of "No"

The Year Of No: Geoff Nunberg declares "no" to be the 2010 word of the year. (In case you're curious, NPR wrote 1,640 articles featuring the word "no" in the past year.)

Stephanie d'Otreppe/NPR

If you were ranking those "word of the year" selections for importance against all of the year-end best-of and top-10 lists, they should fall somewhere between "10 biggest fashion faux pas" and "best celebrity tweets." They're either idle exercises or publicity gambits for dictionaries, and the short lists run to the blends, malaprops and stunt words that word geeks are drawn to — like vuvuzela, webisode and guidette. They're actually not even that interesting as words. They're the cat pictures of the English lexicon.

So people were clearly misunderstanding the enterprise when they jumped on the New Oxford American Dictionary for designating Sarah Palin's refudiate as its word of the year. It wasn't meant to be an honor, and they weren't trying to vindicate Palin's usage, as commenters on both the left and right assumed. And I don't see that it matters whether the selection actually is a word — though if we're allowing nonwords, I'd rather go with crotchal, as in "crotchal area" — the phrase some TSA people were using to delineate the perimeters of their enhanced pat-downs. It recalled nuance-al, the creation of another pioneer of word formation, Alexander Haig, who died this year. Both words testify to a principle central to the language of officialdom: If we can slap a Latin suffix on it, we can make it our own.

Spain fans play a vuvuzela at the end of the Spain-German match in Durban, South Africa.

The vuvuzela rose to prominence during the 2010 World Cup -- but not enough to become the word of the year. Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images

But refudiate, guidette, vuvuzela — they don't have much to do with the run of our daily conversation over the past 12 months. You could make a better case for some other recent words, like crowd-sourcing or double-dip or ObamaCare. But it struck me that you could also capture the prevailing mood by going to the other extreme, and picking that common particle "no," in its various functions.

Sometimes "no" signals absence or nonexistence, and you can come up with a nice collage of the year's preoccupations by enumerating all of the things that were in short supply. At one point or another, 2010 has been the year of no eggs, no fishing or swimming — at least in the Gulf — no campaign spending limits and no ice at the North Pole. It's the year of no more narcissism, which will no longer be recognized as a diagnosis in the official psychiatric manual. And thanks to a legislative anomaly, it was the year of no estate tax — before the tax kicks back up to its earlier level next year. That was a windfall for the heirs of the super-rich who died this year, though it does create an unfortunate incentive to do some discreet plug-pulling this New Year's Eve.

Then, too, 2010 was the year of no-hitters — it would have tied the modern record of seven if the Tigers' Armando Galarraga hadn't been robbed of a perfect game when the umpire blew a call on the 27th batter. And let's not forget the year's most memorable declaration of existential insufficiency, that Texas skateboarder's "Dude, you have no Quran."

Closer to home, economists labeled 2010 the year of no inflation. That was good news for some, though for a lot of people it was more notable as the year of no raises, no Social Security cost-of-living increases, no more home equity — or just no more home; or, as in the case of Arizona Medicaid recipients, as the year of no more organ transplants.

Now I'll grant that you could cobble together a list of sentences like these to capture the zeitgeist of just about any year — after all, we're always running out of something. But this year's voids and shortfalls contributed to a mood that often expressed itself with another no, the one-word response that signals resistance or refusal.

That word usually gets a bad rap in public life; it's never a compliment to call somebody a naysayer. So Democrats obviously meant to put Republicans on the defensive when they began to call them "the party of no" for opposing the stimulus bill in early 2009. As The New York Times' Ben Zimmer pointed out, that phrase has often been used by the party in power to label the opposition as obstructionist. Ronald Reagan branded Democrats as the "party of no" in 1988, Bill Clinton did the same thing to Republicans in 1994, and Tom Delay turned the phrase back on Democrats in 2005.

Rep. John Boehner

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) helped construct and lead the "hell, no" veto strategy against President Obama. J. David Ake/AP hide caption

itoggle caption J. David Ake/AP

What was different this time is that after some early defensiveness, a lot of Republicans embraced the label and even ratcheted it up a notch. "We're not just the party of no," Rush Limbaugh said, "We're the party of hell, no!" — and Republican leaders quickly adopted the line. That extra word shifted the meaning of the phrase — it no longer suggested just opposition to particular bills and programs but unapologetic and resolute defiance.

That stance clearly resonated with a lot of voters. "No" has a great power to bring people together, precisely because it doesn't have to be pinned down. A child has a much harder time mastering "yes," which is always the response to a specific prospect — "Do you need to go potty?" Whereas the child's first "no" comes earlier, as a pure eruption of willful refusal. And the word retains that capacity, even as we learn to intone it to convey despair, anger, defiance, fear, astonishment, disappointment or resignation.

That's what makes these choruses of negativity so hard to read, whether they're coming from unhappy voters or tired preschoolers in full shutdown. Everybody is sounding the same plaintive note, but it isn't as if there's any single juice flavor that will make them all happy again.

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