MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's time once again for our regular segment Words You'll Hear - that's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about in the coming days by parsing some of the words associated with those stories, except this time it's words you've heard. We're talking about the contenders for the 2015 Word of the Year with linguist Ben Zimmer. Mr. Zimmer, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BEN ZIMMER: Hi, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So you preside over the American Dialect Society's conference next month, where the word of 2015 will be crowned. As briefly as you can, how did this tradition get started and how do you pick the contenders?
ZIMMER: Well, it started way back in 1990. And the idea was to select a word that was new or notable, said something about the past year. It was really modeled after Time's Person of the Year. And so we take it very seriously. At the same time, we like to have a lot of fun with the process.
MARTIN: Well, we're going to start with a serious one - deconfliction. What does that mean?
ZIMMER: Yeah, that's a bit of military jargon that we started hearing, especially a few months ago when things started heating up in Syria and Russia was starting to launch airstrikes. And Secretary of State John Kerry said that there had to be deconfliction. What that meant was we had to avoid airspace conflicts. But that's an example where, you know, very often if there's a conflict, that kind of military jargon can be thrust into the public eye.
MARTIN: You wrote earlier this year about unicorns as a way to describe young Silicon Valley companies. What does that mean, and why did we see this word so much this year?
ZIMMER: Yes, that was a term that actually started back in 2013, this idea that a company, a startup that is valued at a billion dollars or more could be called a unicorn because these things - at least at the time - were so rare. But the unicorn club keeps growing and growing. And so now we have herds of unicorns. And these unicorn startups very often can get gobbled up by larger companies or their valuation may dip below that magic billion-dollar mark.
MARTIN: Yeah, yeah, like, what happens? Do you become a horse?
ZIMMER: You become a dead unicorn.
MARTIN: Oh, no.
ZIMMER: Another term as unicorpse.
MARTIN: Another word I saw on your list comes from Taylor Swift. So really we do have to play some, don't we?
ZIMMER: There you go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BLOOD")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause baby now got bad blood. You know it used to be mad love. So take a look at what you've done 'cause baby now we got bad blood.
MARTIN: What's her word, Ben?
ZIMMER: Well, if you hear that, you might just visualize Taylor Swift walking along with her squads - that's her posse. Taylor Swift kind of commandeered that term squad, and we see it being used in all sorts of combinations - like #squadgoals that's often hashtagged on Instagram and other social media. Kind of an aspirational statement about what you would and your squad would like to achieve.
MARTIN: So let me ask you about one more because this was in the news last week. It came from Donald Trump. And - hmm...
MARTIN: Do I want to say this? I guess I have to - schlonged. You think...
MARTIN: ...That has a chance as Word of the Year? And tell me where that came from.
ZIMMER: Well, yeah (laughter). The year was almost over, and Donald Trump graced us with this word schlonged. He was speaking about Hillary Clinton and her defeat in the 2008 primaries. And he said that she got schlonged.
MARTIN: I'm assuming this is from a Yiddish slur. I mean, I'm just...
ZIMMER: It is. It is.
MARTIN: Or, like, a Yiddish vulgarity.
ZIMMER: That is ultimately where it comes from. But Donald Trump claims that this is not vulgar at all. He simply meant that she was beaten in the polls. And it's created, obviously, a lot of controversy. And so it may not be the most presidential of words, but it was certainly one that entered into the political discourse right at the end of the year.
MARTIN: That's Ben Zimmer - he's executive editor for vocabulary.com and a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He'll be presiding over the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year selection. Ben Zimmer, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ZIMMER: Thanks. It was a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.