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Words of 2002

At their annual meeting each January, the members of the American Dialect Society select words and phrases that came to prominence in the previous twelve months. Though those proposing and voting on terms include many academic linguists and dictionary makers, this is definitely lexicography with its hair down.

That’s not to say that the selection is trivial or that it doesn’t reflect current concerns. This year’s is noticeably more serious than some that have preceded it and has been deeply affected by current political and military concerns. Among the words proposed were regime change (a change of leadership through external pressure), weapons of mass destruction, axis of evil, and the less serious Saddameter (an indicator showing the daily likelihood of war with Iraq), and Iraqnophobia (a strong fear of Iraq).

The other major theme this year has been electronic communications, perhaps surprisingly so in view of the bust and the general slowing-down of economic activity in the field. Nominations here included the verb to Google, to seek online information by means of the Google search engine, blog (a log of personal events posted on the Web), dataveillance (surveillance using computer data), and the prefix war- (as in war-driving and war-chalking, meaning unauthorised wireless Internet access).

The more skittish end of linguistic creativity was evident in nominations for grid butt (marks left on the buttocks by fishnet pantyhose), neuticles (fake testicles for neutered pets), sausage fest (a party with more males than females), and unorthodox entrepreneur (a panhandler, prostitute, or drug dealer in a Vancouver park), diabulimia (loss of weight by a diabetic skipping insulin doses), and dialarhoea (the inadvertent dialling of a cell phone in a pocket or handbag).

These are the final results in various categories:

Most likely to succeed: Blog.

Most useful: Google.

Most creative: Iraqnophobia.

Most unnecessary: Wombanisation (feminization).

Most outrageous: Neuticles.

Most euphemistic: Regime change.

Phrase of the Year: Weapons of mass destruction.

Earlier in the week we were also graced with the 28th annual list of Banished Words from the Lake Superior State University at Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. This small college’s yearly mini PR-fest is based on words that have been submitted by the general public in the previous 12 months.

The selection, as so often, reflects idiosyncratic dislikes. Some sponsors of terms were troubled by the lack of logic demonstrated by their creators and users. Untimely death was disliked by several people on the grounds that few deaths are actually timely; on the ground was cordially hated because it is where we spend most of our time anyway; must-see TV is taken by its detractors to mean the opposite; material breach grates, one submitter argued, because it “suggests an obstetrical complication that pulls a physician off the golf course”, rather than an issue of crucial diplomatic and military relevance.

Others hated homeland security, now, more than ever ... and weapons of mass destruction for various reasons, but in essence because they are turning into clichés through overuse.

Other examples cited included the overuse of extreme in sports and marketing, the common saying by sports commentators that there is no score (when what they mean, it was argued, is that the score is 0-0) and the too-frequent appearance of having said that and that said in the news media.

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Page created 11 Jan 2003