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American Dialect Society To Choose Word Of The Year

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Lovers of the English language are coming together to select the coolest word or phrase. Last year, app was voted the word of the year by the American Dialect Society. Now that group of etymologists, writers, historians and other language experts are considering new words for 2011. Linguist Ben Zimmer talks to Renee Montagne to offer his picks for 2011.


It's that time of year when best-of lists are being drawn up, and lovers of the English language come together to select the coolest word or phrase. Last year, we were talking about app, which was voted the word of the year by the American Dialect Society.

Now that group of etymologists, writers, historians and other language experts is again calling for your nominations. Linguist Ben Zimmer is the chair of the New Words Committee, and joined us to offer his picks for 2011. Good morning.

BEN ZIMMER: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Ben, what is the top of your list?

ZIMMER: Well, in terms of the word that I think is most likely to win, I would say it's occupy. That word has certainly been hard to avoid over the last few months, and it's really taken off in a surprising way, so that this word occupy - starting with Occupy Wall Street - has had a kind of modular affect. You can occupy, fill in the blank, anything that you would like. There are even parodies of it: Occupy Sesame Street, occupy my couch - lots of different variations on the theme.

And it's become so powerful that it has become a kind of a call to action in itself. It's an old word, of course, but it's been invested with lots of interesting new meanings.

MONTAGNE: And another political movement has given the lexicon another new term that looks like it'll stay for a while, and that's Arab Spring.

ZIMMER: Definitely, definitely. I mean, when we look back on this year, 2011, Arab Spring may really be the phrase that we remember. It's modeled on past expressions, like Prague Spring of 1968, or even going all the way back to the 18th century with the Springtime of Nations, with the revolutions in Europe.

So this idea of spring being connected to popular uprisings has a long history to it, and that has become the label under which all of these activities in the different countries have been known and recognized. And so that is certainly, you know, a powerful bit of language for the past year.

MONTAGNE: There were also some phrases coined this past year that poke fun at world leaders, and there was one world leader in particular who was very easy to make fun of.

ZIMMER: I'm guessing you're talking about Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. He was done in by revelations of sex parties, and the label that was used for these sex parties was bunga bunga. And now that's quite an invocative and suggestive term, bunga bunga.

It was a little mysterious exactly what might be referred to there. But as soon as bunga bunga got not just into the Italian press, but the, you know, the English language press worldwide, people really picked up on that, and it was an easy way to make fun of Berlusconi's troubles as he was going down.

MONTAGNE: So what about pop culture?

ZIMMER: Some of the diversions that we had this past year included Charlie Sheen at the beginning of the year, having his rather bizarre public breakdown with his own special language that people picked up on. You may recall winning, tiger blood, Adonis DNA, all these Sheen-isms that people started trading.

Now, that has faded a bit. And one interesting thing, too, about winning as an example is that one of its sources of its success, I think, was from Twitter, and this is true of occupy and some other key terms from the past year.

These single words can often get a special power on Twitter by being used as hashtags, where you use the hash sign followed by a word or phrase to identify what you're talking about. It could be a subject matter. It could be a little joke. But these hashtags actually end up having the power of slogans or mantras and really help to spread words and phrases in a popular way.

MONTAGNE: I know it must be hard to pick a favorite, Ben, but if you had a favorite, what would it be?

ZIMMER: Well, a personal favorite of mine from the past year was humblebrag. And that's a term that came up on Twitter, actually, in order to describe the kind of fake humility that we often see celebrities when they're tweeting and talking about how tough their lives are. They've got so many bathrooms in their mansion.

And so the comedian Harris Wittels started up this term humblebrag, which really nailed this particular type of pampered discourse on Twitter. And so it was a perfect little term to describe something new and funny that was happening this year.

MONTAGNE: Well, I'm sure listeners have many suggestions of their own, and you listeners can send your nominations for word of the year to w-o-t-y@AmericanDialect.org. Ben, it's been good talking to you

ZIMMER: Thanks so much.

MONTAGNE: Linguist Ben Zimmer is the new language columnist for the Boston Globe.

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