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Words of 2001

Sharply differing views emerged at the beginning of 2002 about 911 or nine-eleven, which has come to be shorthand in the US for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

At the Annual Meeting of the American Dialect Society in San Francisco in early January 2002, members voted the term not only to be the one Most Likely to Succeed, but also declared it to be their Word of the Year. However, earlier in the same week, the Lake Superior State University issued its list of words which should be banished from the language. Nine-eleven was on that list, too, as a term which many people seem to have found trivialising or unnecessary.

The American Dialect Society each year chooses a group of words in various categories that seem to be most representative of the year just past. It must be said that voting is governed by intentions that are not always wholly scholarly. Tongues are often in cheeks, and mischievous intent is not unknown. The full list of the awards is:

Most Outrageous: assoline, methane used as a fuel.

Most Euphemistic: daisy cutter, a bomb used by US Air Forces in Afghanistan (not new, but definitely one of the words of 2001 with the highest visibility).

Most Useful: there was a tie between facial profiling, videotaping a crowd to identify criminals and terrorists, and second-hand speech, overheard cell-phone conversation.

Most Creative: shuicide bomber, a terrorist with a bomb in his shoe.

Most Unnecessary: impeachment nostalgia, longing for the superficial news of the Clinton era.

Least Likely to Succeed: Osamaniac, a woman sexually attracted to Osama bin Laden.

Most Inspirational: Let’s roll!, the words of the late Todd Beamer, who mobilised passengers on Flight 93 on 11 September to overcome the terrorists who had hijacked the plane.

See the American Dialect Society site for previous annual selections going back to 1990.

On the flip side, every New Year’s Day since 1976 the Lake Superior State University has issued a list of words that should be banished from the language for misuse, overuse or general uselessness. The list is compiled from nominations sent in to the University by people from all over the place. It began as a publicity ploy for this small college, and should be taken in much the same spirit as the unicorn hunts and the world stone-skipping tournaments that were two other initiatives of LSSU’s former head of publicity, the late Bill Rabe.

Also, it has to be taken more as a measure of words and phrases that generally annoy submitters than as a list of unwanted words of the year 2001. For example, the current set includes synergy, car-jacking, infomercial (wrongly spelled, alas), and no-brainer, none of which are new. Some words in the list have no good alternatives and some who wrote seemed less concerned with cleansing the language of unwanted or useless terms than they were with seizing the opportunity to complain by proxy about the thing the word identifies (faith-based is a good example).

Apart from 911, in the same area of life, the phrase then the terrorists will have won gained much support as an annoying expression: as one nominator put it: “It has become so over-used as to become almost meaningless, especially when, for example, the Smallville Chamber of Commerce says, ‘If you don’t come to the annual parade, then the terrorists win’.”

Though you should provide yourself with the proverbial pinch of salt before visiting the Banished Words site, you may spot some over-familiar terms in the full list of nominations that you, too, feel strongly about. You can also see the lists from previous years, and the story of how the Banished Words List came about. You can even nominate a word of your own ...

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Page created 12 Jan 2002