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TERRY GROSS, Host:

It's the time of year when everybody's coming out with their best of and top 10 lists, and linguists and dictionaries are eager to get in on the action. So we asked our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, if he could come up with his own word of the year. He thought about it and then said no.

GEOFF NUNBERG: If you were ranking all those word of the year selections for importance against all 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 tend to run to the sorts of blends, malaprops and stunt words that word geeks are drawn to - items like vuvuzela, webisode and guidette. They're actually not even that interesting as words. They're the cat pictures of the English lexicon.

NUNBERG: If we can slap a Latin suffix on it, we can make it our own.

But refudiate, guidette, vuvuzela - they don't have much to do with the general run of our conversation over the last 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 it signals absence or nonexistence, and you can come up with a nice collage of the year's preoccupations by enumerating all 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.

I 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 the 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.

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 or disappointment.

That's what makes these choruses of negativity so hard to read, whether they're unhappy voters or tired preschoolers in full shutdown. They're all sounding the same plaintive no, but it isn't as if there's any single juice flavor that will make them all happy again.

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

You can find links to all of his commentaries from this year on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews some of the best new holiday pop music.

This is FRESH AIR.

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