Where the Races Stand
December 1, 2008
When it comes to choosing words of the year, two groups tower over everyone else: The American Dialect Society and the Webster’s New World Dictionary. The first group, a great mix of populism and elitism (how of the people can you really be, Grant Barrett, when you leave comments on Yesterday’s Salad?), always seems to select a word that people actually use yet still has that unmistakable sense of freshness, i.e. subprime (2007), plutoed (2006), truthiness (2005), and metrosexual (2002).
The Webster’s New World Dictionary, on the other hand, caters to a bunch of obscurantist techno-centrists who are determined to govern from the left. Last year’s word of the year, “grass station,” was so memorably bad, I couldn’t resist becoming a kind of threnodist (one who writes a song of lamentation), and challenged their standing in even selecting a word:
After all, what does “New World” college dictionary mean? Whence “New World?” The phrase presupposes at the very least one of, but possibly several, terrible things. One need not be a post-Colonial critic to see that the phrase is overly Eurocentric, the “New World” existing only in opposition to the old. That this continues after Mel Gibson has taught us that there was indeed a world here at the same time there was one there, is simply unconscionable. There can be no “New World” because the phrase can easily be destabilized, fall to the forces of cultural relativism. The other major culprit is the Hegelian system of Dialectics. But with the end of History no more, have we really entered into a New World?
This is, of course, to say nothing of the overtones of fascism and totalitarianism that abound in the name; “New World” being remarkably close to New World Order [On that note, another objection: Joy Division was superior]. Or perhaps it is a question of Messianism, with its new world of a kingdom on Earth. Or the world could refer to economic development, with the “New World” relating somehow to the transition from the 3rd world to the 1st. When all is said and done, the phrase “New World” is so indefinite as to render their very project, their very essence, null and void. more
That said, their choice this year is surprisingly unaweful: overshare. While spellcheck doesn’t think this is a word, we all intuitively understand what it means and understand how to use it. Since their other finalists were preposterously awful (leisure sickness, selective ignorance, cyberchondriac, and youthanasia), it remains to be seen whether this turn to the sensical is a nonce choice or a new editorial guidline.
No, this year the “best” selection was the New Oxford American dictionary’s choice: hypermiling. Like “grass station,” hypermiling is a social policy, and one decidedly outside the mainstream. The announcement mentions the hullabaloo over Obama’s suggestion that we keep our tires at the optimal air level; can you imagine the outcry if he had suggested we hypermile?
That none of this ‘matters’ is true. Then again, consider this list of words of the year from 1904-2004. It’s difficult to imagine a world without these words and concepts–most of the time. For every 4 or 5 “ad-libs” there’s a “hot-desking,” allocating desks on a temporary or revolving basis, a word out of place in a blackberried world.
Right now, the top contender for Word of the Year is Merriam-Webster’s “bailout.” While it appears shockingly conservative, consider that the word “bail-out” was considered rare until this year. Unfortunately for politicians, bailout appears to have two semi-contradictory meanings, and it remains to be seen which one the government will accomplish:
1) From bail, v4, to lade out, throw water out of the boat. So, the process of saving the boat by bailing out the water
2) (of an airman) to make an emergency parachute jump. So, a bailout: jumping out of a plane in an emergency.
Both seem oddly appropriate for our current crisis.