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What's The Word? How English Evolved This Decade

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What's The Word? How English Evolved This Decade

Pop Culture

What's The Word? How English Evolved This Decade

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, is always paying attention to how our language is changing. He's been thinking about which words and phrases from the past year and decade have caught on and which haven't.

GEOFF NUNBERG: It's list-making season again. Time Magazine got out of the gate early with its list of the year's top buzzwords, along with lists of the ten top albums, apologies, fashion faux pas, and viral videos, among others. They had lot of lively catchphrases to choose from: sexting, wise Latina and beer summit, not to mention all the labels for people with doubts about the president's birthplace, his plans to pull the plug on granny, and whether the Tenth Amendment allows the federal government to provide health care at all. The tea-baggers, the birthers, the deathers, the tenthers - it sounds less like a political movement than the bill for a thrash metal concert in Cleveland.

But words from headlines tend to be short-lived. They get a moment in the sun, then fade as quickly as a tan line. Remember daisy cutter, spider hole, bennifer. They are lot like the category that Time calls top fleeting celebrities, the linguistic equivalents of Nadya Suleman, Carrie Prejean, Stephanie Birkett, and the Salahis - see, you forgot already. The more interesting words usually catch on more slowly. For its word of the year, the Oxford American Dictionary chose unfriend, as in, I went online and unfriended her. It's not a bad choice to stand in for the rise of social networks.

It works the same bizarro alterations on the structure of an ordinary word that the social sites do on the structure of ordinary personal relationships. Granted, it's been around for a few years but then these cultural trends can take a while to spread across the social landscape. By the time you can get good arugula in Tulsa, it's already coming off the menus in Tribeca. As it happens, this is one of the years when the odometer goes around two places, and the members of the American Dialect Society, which originated the word-of-the-year business 20 years ago, will also be selecting a word of the decade when they meet in Baltimore in early January.

I got a list of the nominees from the lexicographer Grant Barrett of Wordnik, who has been taking suggestions via email and tweet. I wasn't interested in trying to pick a winner - that will almost certainly come down to one of a handful of obvious candidates like 9/11, terrorism, Google, or green. But to me, the interesting exercise was to see what picture emerges when you try to take in a whole decade's worth of words in a single glance. I stopped writing these down when I got to about 200 of them. The list already seemed like a hopeless hodgepodge: Swine flu and suduko, terrorist, fist jab and freedom fries, maverick and macaca.

It reminded me of a TV commercial for one of those hits of the '70s compilation CDs, with a succession of songs by Gloria Gaynor, Neil Diamond, Kool and the Gang, and The Clash. What exactly did they have in common, other than that they all happened to be on the air in the same season? But there are patterns. Groups of words arranged themselves into miniature narratives - wmds, cakewalk, shock and awe, mission accomplished, backdoor draft, hillbilly armor, stay the course, redeployment - that basically sums up the story in ten words or less.

Not surprisingly for the decade that divided the country into red and blue, it was saturated with sexual and cultural ambivalence. It pronounced approvingly on metrosexual and moved queer into primetime. At the same time politicians were raising the specter of man on dog and adolescents were turning gay into a new synonym for lame or uncool. It gave us the cougar and femocracy. It also revived stand by your man and created dad-and-daughter purity balls and the verb bitch-slap. In the realm of techno-prefixes, E and cyber were out and I was in, along with neuro, eco, blogo and of course tw.

Technology also brought us malware and the pop-under, insidious successor to the pop-up, not to mention the assorted ailments known as cell phone neck, BlackBerry thumb, Nintendo elbow and Facebook fatigue. It was a good decade for the lexicon of snark, starting with snark itself. We were busy voting people off the island, throwing them under the bus, and generally not here to make friends. It was the era of LOL, WTF, and the new interjection meh, an expression of bored indifference that has acquired more than 400,000 enthusiastic Facebook fans.

Like every decade, it was rich in euphemisms. Some brought new creativity to familiar topics: have a wide stance, and hiking the Appalachian Trail for sexual embarrassments, negative equity and distressed assets for financial ones. Others broke new ground. What was most disturbing about enhanced interrogation techniques and extraordinary rendition wasn't that they were indirect. It was that we were actually having those discussions at all. We've come a long way since the 1990s, in its blissful ignorance of zombie banks and ninja loans, dirty bombs and IEDs, lolcats and bromances.

But it's telling to recall some of the phrases that didn't catch on. We stopped saying: if you do that the terrorists will win. In fact, we stopped talking about the terrorists, period. We didn't abandon country for homeland. We bailed on evildoers and the coalition of the willing bailed on us. And we wound up giving the cheese-eating surrender monkeys their own chef shows on Bravo. It's a different language we speak now but maybe not as much as we thought it might be.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. I'm Terry Gross.

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