Words Of The Year 2011

Putting that English Literature degree to good use, we see. Image: Mildly Sweded.

Putting that English Literature degree to good use, we see. Image: Mildly Sweded.

As the squeezed middle tergiversates on the occupy movement, it remains pragmatic. And because that sentence makes a lot more sense than I’d hoped, it’s notable now only because it is almost all woty.

What, indeed?!

Let’s back it up and break it down: annually between November and January the internet starts leaking Words of the Year – WOTYs? – from various lexicographical authorities and otherwise, and in 2011 that leak became an efflux. The first sentence of this piece was 12 words long and almost half of them were WOTYs.

Ignoring prepositions, definite articles, pronouns and words that didn’t make the cut, that leaves us with squeezed, middle, tergiversate, occupy and pragmatic. I think we can all agree that this list is amazeballs (runner up in the American Dialect Society’s Most Unnecessary category, by the way; it lost to bi-winning). But how did it come to exist?

Well, firstly, squeezed and middle are not two separate words, as you’ve believed all your life; they’re one word. Specifically, the combined Oxford Dictionaries’ 2011 WOTY: squeezed middle. Coined by British opposition leader Ed Milliband, it refers to “those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens whilst having the least with which to relieve it” and it was a tight race at Oxford HQ, but ultimately – and for the first time ever – the UK and US dictionaries teams agreed and they made it their global WOTY.

Why? Says Kirsty Doole on the OUP blog, Oxford’s WOTY is a word or expression that they feel has attracted a great deal of interest in the year to date, a ‘word’ that – regardless of whether or not it is actually in the dictionary – Oxford lexicographers feel has been embraced by the general public.

Of course, Oxford’s definition of global is rather limited because despite what those poor souls struggling to survive on $150K a year might say, here in the land of unicorns that poop strong currencies and regulated banking, the term ‘squeezed middle’ is as bafflingly foreign as last year’s British number one, Big Society (Oxford might also want to check its definition of a word).

We can blame Merriam-Webster for pragmatic. More specifically, we can blame the American users of Merriam-Webster, as their list is determined by the volume of user lookups and pragmatic got the most, peaking in the weeks before Congress voted to increase the US debt ceiling. Seems a pretty obvious way for a dictionary to choose its number one word, yes?

Unless that dictionary is Dictionary.com. These guys have always seemed somewhat of a Pinocchio dictionary to me, but with one audacious move they’ve finally become a real boy, with balls. That move? Choosing tergiversate – a verb nobody’s ever heard of, essentially meaning ‘to flip-flop’ – and justifying it thus: why not actually use the dictionary to find a word that captured the character of 2011, regardless of its popularity or ubiquity?

Ignoring the fact that that’s actually the opposite of how a dictionary works, you have to be impressed – tergiversate, from the Latin word for ‘with one’s back turned’, perfectly encapsulates the stock market, politicians, public opinion etc during the past 12 months. Plus, it’s called tergiversate. And the Dictionary.com balls don’t stop there. Their runners up included zugzwang and oppugnancy. And yes, I’ve checked other dictionaries; they are real words (although I’m a bit sad oppugnancy isn’t the word I initially read it as: occupugnancy).

Which brings us to the number one number one: occupy. Topping Time’s list of 2011 buzzwords, it was voted into first place by the aforementioned American Dialect Society – the granddaddy of WOTY arbiters – and was used the most, according to the Global Language Monitor, whose NarrativeTracker “analyzes the Internet, blogosphere, the top 75,000 print and electronic global media, as well as new social media sources,” according to its president, Paul JJ Payack. The word was also runner-up in most other lists, and was so popular it even made it onto Lake Superior State University’s annual list of banished words.

It beat fracking (the Rosetta Stone for understanding between the Greens and the Nationals), trustafarians (1 per cent brat, 99 per cent arsehat), Mellencamp (a grandcougar) and 3Q (apparently a “near-universal term” for ‘thank you’, which I’m assuming means a universe near ours. I mean, I’m practically shaking my cane at those damn kids, but c’mon! How do you get thank-you from three-Q? Even Wikipedia agrees with me).

But wait, there’s more! Hip-hop’s twenty-eleven WOTY was swag, obviously. A Canadian journalist has taken it upon himself to determine the Canadian WOTY; candidates include SlutWalk, flash robs and not. Cambridge Dictionaries refuse to settle for just one, instead compiling a list of the Words of 2011, including – in no particular order – Robin Hood tax, pretzel hat, Sheening, foam pie and bunga bunga. You’ll note that only one of these is a word.

The Chinese have kòng 控; the Japanese kizuna 絆. And the Huns’ Wort des Jahres for 2011 is the decidedly Anglo-sounding stresstest, as determined by the Society for the German Language (GfdS). (As an aside, the English-speaking world needs to immediately annex the GfdS’s third-placed wort, arabellion; so much better than our Arab spring – a runner up on numerous lists – and not just because it is, in fact, a word).

And us? Macquarie Dictionary’s poll opened on 9 January 2012, because, as I noted in 2010, they’re aware of the typical definition of a year in the Gregorian Calendar. Among the ‘words’ you can vote for, in categories such as Colloquial, Sport (this is Australia) and Crops, are: cara cara navel (an orange), thongage (a thong tax), guyliner (see: Russell Brand), PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) and totes (I totes want totes to win).

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  1. Mel says:

    This passed me by, so I’m not sure when the announcement was made but Macquaire’s WOTY for 2011 is … ‘burqini’, which is now added to the dictionary but doesn’t even bulk out English-speaking Scrabble players’ Q without U list.

    Among their runners up were ‘dairyness’, ‘patchwork economy’ and ‘announceable’.

    The People’s Choice was ‘fracking’.

  2. Mel says:

    And I just spelled Macquarie incorrectly.

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