Language is an organic system. It grows and changes to meet its speakers’ needs. You can learn a lot about a society by watching the words it uses. Many dictionaries and other word experts catalog words that are in vogue. As a writer, you can leverage this information to help your writing meet its goals. Choose words that are popular to connect with your readers or avoid them to set yourself apart.
Let’s take a look at what 2009’s most popular words were.
2009 Word of the Year
The New Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) named unfriend its word of the year. This social media term means to remove someone from a social media network (see this Vocab Builder post for more on OAD’s choice).
The OAD wasn’t the only dictionary to choose a word of the year, however. Another heavyweight dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster (M-W), chose admonish (“to express warning or disapproval”) as its word of the year. M-W bases its choice on searches made on its dictionary and thesaurus sites. Admonish was searched for the most often over the shortest period during the year.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary chose distracted driving as its word of the year. Editor-in-Chief Mike Agnes briefly outlines why New World made this choice:
The Global Language Monitor tracks words and phrases used online (including blogs and social media) and in print media. Its proprietary algorithm popped up the following as the most popular words for 2009:
Hmm, I wonder what we were preoccupied with in 2009?
CityDictionary.com is a repository of local words, resposited (yup, that’s a word) by its readers. Want to add local flavor to your writing? Start here. You’ll discover that New York claims schlep (one of my favs, meaning to carry stuff for a long distance) and slice (a slice of cheese pizza; if you want pepperoni, don’t ask for “a slice” in NYC), while Boston claims clicka (a remote control) and carriage (a shopping cart).
Local Words of the Year celebrates “local words that highlight the unique culture of American cities. While each of the five words was selected for its own distinct reasons, each is in some way representative of the local culture from which it comes and is not (yet) widely known across the country,” says CityDictionary. Its picks are:
- sconnie (Madison, WI): term that describes something related to Wisconsin
- neutral ground (New Orleans, LA): most commonly used to mean the median of a street
- polio water (Boston, MA): a puddle of water, usually dirty (I have to admit that I’m unfamiliar with this one)
- slugging (Washington, DC): a type of hitchhiking in which individuals (slugs) line up near the highway (freeway, to some of you) and cars stop to pick up the slugs, thus enabling the driver to use the HOV lane on the highway
- meat raffle (Minneapolis, MN): a charity event that often takes place in Minnesota bars, and raffles off, you know, meat (yeah, that’s not where my mind went on that one. Hey, a dirty mind is a valuable quality in an editor; you need to think dirty to catch double entendres before they publish and embarrass the writer)
But my favorite list is Lake Superior State University’s (LSSU’s) Banished Words. LSSU receives nominations throughout the year for words to be banished from “the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness.” This tongue-in-cheek list is great fun and gets a lot of publicity. Getting people to actually stop using the words, however, is probably a pipe dream. 1988’s list included my bad and Generation X, both of which are still popular. Below are the list and my opinions. You’ve been warned.
- shovel-ready: This term implies “that a project has been completely designed and all that is left to do is to implement it…however, when something dies, it, too, is shovel-ready for burial,” said one nominator. I actually think this is a good call. It was meaningless to me until I searched out a definition. Besides, how useful is a term if you don’t know whether the project is ready to implement or dead?
- transparent/transparency: The comments indicated that people are tired of politicians using these words when they are being anything but transparent. I’m all for transpar-, uh, being clear.
- czar: Interestingly, George W. Bush appointed 47 people for 35 czar positions. Barack Obama has (thus far) appointed 8 people for 38 czar positions. Mr. President, would you help ban czar by appointing people to positions not labeled as czar? Language mavens everywhere will appreciate it. Thanks.
- tweet: This includes all tweet‘s variants, including tweetaholic, retweet, twitterhea, twitterature, and twittersphere. I have to argue against this one. You can read the comments to ban it for yourself, but it seems to me that those commenting don’t actively use Twitter. I do, and I know a lot of others who do too. If you say you tweeted something, I know you posted something specifically on Twitter. If you say you retweeted something, I know you reposted someone else’s tweet, giving them credit. If you say you posted an update (three words rather than one, mind), I wouldn’t know if you posted something on Facebook, FriendFeed, or some other social media site or microblog. Do the variations get silly? Certainly. But those will be weeded out over time. Tweet and retweet will hang around as long as Twitter does, maybe longer, especially as the platform becomes more popular.
- APP: I was surprised to see this in all caps. “App” is a shortened form of “application,” much as “bus” is for “omnibus.” (If someone can explain to me why it’s capped, I’d appreciate it.) And I think it’ll stay. People tend to shorten longer words they use a lot; applications are part and parcel of technology in general. Good luck banning it, folks.
- Sexting: to send sexual text messages and pictures via cell phone. I have seen this term a few times but haven’t had any cause to use it (maybe I’m just not writing about sexy enough topics). If the act becomes mainstream in any way, though, this word will stick around. If someone’s doing it, we need a word to describe it. Sorry, folks.
- Friend: to make someone a part of an online social network. I see nothing wrong with this word. Befriend may sound better to some people, but friend creates a picture in my mind of an online relationship, perhaps even restricted to online (though I wouldn’t count on it staying online only).
- Teachable moment: Otherwise called a lesson. If you’re raising or teaching kids, I would think every moment is one in which you can teach. Lesson is a perfectly good word. No need to get all snooty about it. Unless, of course, there is a need to get snooty about it. It’s all about knowing your audience.
- In these economic times: Yup, I’m over this phrase. What I’m really over (and what is really overdone) is story after story about the economy. I know it’s bad; I’ve checked my wallet. And I know it’s affecting everyone, because I talk to other people. Are you really going to rehash what we all know is going on? Must you tell us something we already know…again? Say something new or I’ll move on.
- Stimulus: Another overdone topic. I’ve tuned it out.
- Toxic assets: The image in my mind is of a rusty oil barrel with oozing, bubbling green yuck. It’s a good image. But if it’s the 10th or 100th time your reader has seen it, it becomes meaningless. If you want to emphasize how bad the stocks were, try being original about it.
- Too big to fail: The concept makes me — and lots of other people — angry. If your goal is to anger readers (and it might be), keep using this phrase.
- Bromance: Admittedly, I had to look this one up as I’d never heard of it before. According to Wikipedia, it’s “a close but non-sexual relationship between two (or more) men, a form of homosocial intimacy.” Um, can’t guys having loving friendships without everyone getting their knickers in a twist about what kind of love it is? Geez, guys, get over it.
- chillaxin’: If chilling means relaxing, what are you doing if you’re doing both? Are you extra chilled? Extra relaxed? It is overkill to sound cool and fails miserably.
Words come and go, fashionable one minute, gauche the next. Now you know what the coolest, and not so cool, buzzwords are. Sprinkle them liberally throughout your writing or ban them forever more. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
And if you want to add your own two cents, vote for MacQuariedictionary.com‘s Word of the Year.