Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Words of the Year


The Words of the Year
The Justin Bieber, Shellacking, Vuvuzela: Three new additions to the lexicon.
December 18, 2010

Vuvuzela is a great word, one of the best to enter American popular culture in 2010, though it sounds nothing like an actual vuvuzela. A vuvuzela sounds like a long, droning moan, a sound full of garbage and tennis balls.

The vuvuzela’s long, plastic barrel provided Americans with the junk shot of sounds this year, the sort of noise you could hear even through a containment dome placed over a gushing underwater oil well owned by BP. (Though if you take a vuvuzela to the airport, you’re going to get an enhanced pat-down, sure as we could be entering a double-dip recession.)

Close your eyes while someone blows a vuvuzela and you can see all this clearly, as if it were playing on a spill-cam over your Web browser at work. Open them and it’s just a World Cup game highlight (speaking of great words: Uruguay vs. Ghana).

And the oil kept coming, all summer long, and with it new words — top kill, static kill, bottom kill — that meant failure, until at bottom they didn’t. (There may be put-backs for mortgage bonds. It doesn’t work so well with oil.)

Everyone was glad that the fish kill wasn’t as bad as it might have been. Dispersants may have worked. But the blowout preventer did not.

Refudiate is almost a better word than vuvuzela, because it’s not so much a real word as a neologism, one much of America attributes to Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, who used it in a Twitter message in July. (She took a real shellacking for that.) The Oxford University Press called it the word of the year.

But refudiate was not Ms. Palin’s word first, even if she unpacked the portmanteau all by her lonesome. David Segal of The New York Times had it in print in late June, in an article about people who sell marijuana for a living. They are not easy to interview.

“Simple yes-or-no questions yield 10-minute soliloquies,” he wrote. “Words are coined on the spot, like ‘refudiate,’ and regular words are used in ways that make sense only in context.”

It’s like a halfalogue, talking to those guys.

Speaking of, did you see “Inception”? (Can Ms. Palin refudiate a claim that she took the word refudiate from a sleeping marijuana salesman?) Did you i-dose on Justin Bieber videos (I’m a Belieber!) or contemplate becoming one of the Hollywood star whackers who sent Randy Quaid around a bend and up to Canada to seek asylum? Did you weep along with HungryBear’s double rainbow on YouTube, then seek double rainbows yourself?

Most important of all, did you stand for or against the ground zero mosque near the ground zero Century 21, some blocks away from ground zero itself but almost directly next door to a bar?

G.Z.M. was a big word for 2010, until it was not. On that subject, there was quantitative easing as soon as the midterm elections were over.

QE2! — Sam Sifton

The Words That Made the Year

The old and new puns, slang and jargon that we lived with this year. Compiled by Grant Barrett.

Pop Culture

belieber: A fan of Justin Bieber, the Canadian pop singer who also spawned ...

the Justin Bieber: A haircut also known as the flip and switch, the flow, or the twitch. Now driving parents crazy everywhere.

G.T.L.: For “gym, tan, laundry,” the life philosophy of the Situation, otherwise known as Mike Sorrentino of the reality TV program “Jersey Shore.” You laugh, but it’s worked for him.

i-dosing: A supposed digital drug. Certain soundwaves, the claim goes, give listeners a high. Skeptics abound, watchful parents are everywhere.

star whacker: The latest in celeb coinage. In October, the actor Randy Quaid and his wife, Evi, begged for asylum in Canada, claiming fear of star whackers, people who had already killed other famous people and were out to get them, too.


coffice: In South Korea, a coffee shop habitually used as an office by customers, who mooch its space, electricity, Wi-Fi and other resources. Presumably, they pay for the coffee.

halfalogue: Half of a conversation, like an overheard phone call. The term was coined in the research paper “Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations: When Less Speech is More Distracting” in the journal Psychological Science.

sofalize: A British marketing term created for people who prefer to stay home and communicate with others electronically.

mansplainer: A man compelled to explain or give an opinion about everything — especially to a woman. He speaks, often condescendingly, even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or even if it’s none of his business. Old term: a boor.

social graph: The structure of personal networks, who people know and how they know them, especially online. The term probably came from the internal lingo at Facebook, but it has spread widely among technology companies.


demon sheep: The political ad that captured critics everywhere for being “baaad,” as The Wall Street Journal put it. The Senate campaign of Carly Fiorina used and retired the ad, but other campaigns quickly created their own parodies.

mama grizzly: Coined by Sarah Palin, “mama grizzly” is the conservative woman’s battle cry, referring to mothers who ferociously defend their children or policies that benefit them. Often used with humor. In her new book, Ms. Palin wrote that it’s “bear propaganda” to insist that these bears are cute and cuddly.

poutrage: False outrage, usually put on for personal, financial or political gain.

refudiate: Another Palinism, this time a blend of refute and repudiate. Now used with an eyebrow raised.

shellacking: President Obama’s preferred way to describe what happened to Democrats in the midterm elections. Some might call it a knock-down punch.


cuddle class: Economy-class airplane seats that unfold into a bed or couch, as proposed by Air New Zealand, which calls them “Skycouch” seats.

porno scanner: A full-body security scanner that provoked outrage at airports and on blogs. Also called strip-search scanners and, more politely, by the Transportation Security Administration, advanced imaging technology.

enhanced pat-down: Frisking in which security workers slide the palms of their hands down a person’s body in a search for contraband or weapons.


double-dip recession: What economists talked about, and what every Obama administration official feared.

flash crash: The mystery of the financial markets this year: a May 6 market drop of almost 1,000 points.

peak water: Like “peak oil,” a theory that humans may have used the water easiest to obtain, and that scarcity may be on the rise.

QE2: Not the ocean liner, but the abbreviation for the Fed’s latest round of quantitative easing, its purchase of Treasury bonds. The term is usually used by critics derisively, and often in combination with another disaster, the sinking of the Titanic.

robo-signer and put-back: Even for people who never read their mortgage documents, these terms became inescapable as the foreclosure crisis hit. For the record, a robo-signer approves mortgage foreclosure notices without verifying its contents. A put-back is a mortgage sold back to an institutional seller because of problems with documentation.

The Oil Spill

containment dome: After the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, everyone became an engineer. The containment dome? Yes, that seals the leak.

junk shot: Plugging the leak with old tires, golf balls and other debris.

static kill: Sealing the well by pumping in a synthetic mud from the top.

bottom kill: The same technique, only many thousands of feet further down the well through a relief well. How we got this education: the 24-hour spillcam that broadcast the leak.


inception: Popularized by the movie “Inception,” the word expanded from its usual meaning and now refers to ideas planted in the dreams of other people.

double rainbow: A phrase from the hugely popular YouTube video by Paul Vasquez, featuring his breathless amazement at the sight of two rainbows at Yosemite National Park. It spawned parodies, television commercials, dance mixes, Auto-Tune versions, parties and Halloween costumes, and is now used to refer — ironically and not — to something amazing.

E.V.: An electric vehicle. While the term has been around for decades, there are now more cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which makes it more than an environmentalist’s pipeless dream.

G.Z.M.: An acronym for ground zero mosque — the shorthand term for a controversial Muslim community center proposed near the site where the World Trade Center was attacked.

vuvuzela: The South African plastic trumpet that invaded, like locusts, the World Cup matches in Johannesburg. Television viewers, as well as participants, couldn’t escape the buzzzzz.

Weird: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic, an acronym and criticism of the typical subjects in studies by behavioral scientists. That is, they tend to be the easiest to recruit: undergraduates.

Grant Barrett is a lexicographer specializing in slang and new words. He is a host of the public radio program “A Way With Words” and vice president of the American Dialect Society, devoted since 1889 to the study of English in North America.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 19, 2010, on page WK1 of the New York edition.

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