American Dialect Society Mulling Word Of The Year

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The American Dialect Society announces the "word of the year" next week. Word scholars and the general public can submit "word" nominations anytime before Jan. 6. Linguist Ben Zimmer talks to Renee Montagne about words and phrases that have become a part of everyday chatter in 2010.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

You've got until January 6, one week, to nominate your favorite word or phrase of 2010. That's the deadline the American Dialect Society has set for its word of the year, which will be announced the very next day. You'll be in good company. Scholars of the English language are also nominating their favorites. And here to tell us his favorites is linguist Ben Zimmer. He writes the On Language column for The New York Times Magazine.

Good morning.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Linguist): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, among the words and phrases that have entered the lexicon big-time this year, what is the word at the very top of your list?

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, the very top of my list has a word that is rather trashy actually, and that word is junk. We heard a lot about junk this year in various contexts. We heard about how Greece's credit rating was lowered to junk status and that set all the stock markets tumbling. We heard about the junk shot, which was something that BP tried to do in order to fix that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But perhaps most famously, we heard a young man at the airport in San Diego in November tell a screener from the TSA, the security there, if you touch my junk I'll have you arrested. And this became kind of a rallying cry for people who were upset about the new security protocols that the TSA had enforced.

MONTAGNE: What other words caught your attention?

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, the whole WikiLeaks scandal generated a lot of new words and phrases, I think. And something that's a bit newer that people were talking about after the fallout of WikiLeaks was hacktivism, which describes the kind of activism that's performed by computer hackers. And we saw that happening when there were hackers that were rallying to the defense of WikiLeaks and trying to shut down websites that they perceived to be the enemies of WikiLeaks, so they were performing hacktivism.

MONTAGNE: Every year there are words that come out of the political world. And there was one word that is actually quite an old word that got some currency this year and that was shellacking.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yes. This was a colorful slang term used by President Obama to describe the thorough defeats that the Democrats experience, you know, shellac, of course, is this kind of resin that's used for a varnish for floors and so forth. But in the 1920s, it started being used as a verb in a slangy way originally by the Flappers of the 1920s who would use it to say how they got drunk in a particularly inebriated way. If you were shellacked it was like you were plastered.

And then eventually it started being used in sports as well, particularly boxing for instance. If a boxer was really beat up very badly you could say that he was shellacked. And, you know, then we saw the transfer of that into things like politics, where you could talk about it as being a bad defeat at the polls.

MONTAGNE: So what makes a word or phrase catch on?

Mr. ZIMMER: Very often it can rely on past words as a kind of a mash-up. We often see this happening in pop culture for instance, where fans of Justin Bieber call themselves Beliebers, which combines Bieber and believer. Or the fans of the TV show "Glee" call themselves gleeks, which combines glee and geeks. So very often you can find the building blocks of new words and phrases just by combining things that we already have at hand.

And then it also really needs to strike a chord. It needs to resonate with a particular subculture, and we find these things catching on very quickly these days through the use of social networking. Social media like Twitter and Facebook allows these things to spread very quickly these days.

MONTAGNE: Ben Zimmer's website is called "Visual Thesaurus" and he's also on the Executive Council of the American Dialect Society.

Thanks very much and Happy New Year.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you. Happy New Year.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And if you've got a nomination of your own for word of the year, remember there is still time. Send an email to WOTY at American Dialect.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Youre listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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