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.

I spent part of last week composing a retrospective for the first full year of YS in my mind, but I could never find the right lede, nor think of what posts I’d want to include, and before I knew it, it was 2008 and I’d missed my chance at both sending off my “malprorpiate valedictions” (the intended title) and having dinner with Chris Dodd. The problem might be that even if my brain is now a computer (as the furious romantic tells me), it doesn’t get internet, and I couldn’t remember all the posts that we’ve published over the year. Also, I was feeling nostalgic, and I’m still confused about whether or not nostalgia is still a good thing in this post-Garcia-Marquez world.

Apparently, I’m not the only one rejecting nostalgia. Treehugger reports on the growing phenomenon of “solastalgia.” Coined a couple of years ago by Glenn Albrech, “solastalgia” is “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.” Specifically, it is:

“.. the distress caused by the lived experience of the transformation of one’s home and sense of belonging and is experienced through the feeling of desolation about its change.” (link)

The term was created as a result of climate change, and has been gaining currency as the actuality of climate change has gained recognition. But even if the term is new, there’s certainly nothing new in the concept. Environmental and urban change has always been a topic of literature where it has been handled in any number of perspectives. Blakes, “And did those feet” concerns a type of solastalgia. The implied narrator wonders how Jerusalem could have been built “among these dark satanic mills” and yearns for a messianic return to the British pastoral, “England’s green and pleasant land.” One could even read it into Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” one of the great imaginary places in American literature. In particular, its early chapters, with their religious overtones, could bear such a reading.

“Solastalgia” could probably been seen as the guiding concept of season 2 of The Wire. That season (perhaps the least appreciated) concerned the decline of the American working class, and the struggle over gentrification. There’s a scene where one of the dock workers looks into buying a home only to be blown away at the cost of buying in his increasingly gentrifying neighborhood. His urban life was passing away before his eyes.

I’m not saying we should immediately rush out and start using “solastalgia” in our term papers, though it would hardly be the first environmental term to catch on as a literary term; after all, Derrida structured one of his most entertaining pieces around the word/concept “biodegradable.” Somehow “solastalgia” seems too clumsy to really succeed, but if it does, it may just be 2008’s word of the year.

When last we left the word of the year dispute, YS had successfully slain the dragon of “locavore” and invalidated the standing of the Webster’s New World College Dictionary to rule on such a matter after their nonsensical choice of the equally nonsensical “grass station.” I was going to leave the matter at that (or at least wait until the American Dialect Society announced its choice), but the New York Times decided to pull me back in. The Times article basically summarizes YS’ findings, and ends with this quote from the Boston Globe language columnist: “I can’t help thinking that 10 weeks of WOTY fever is about eight weeks more than anyone wants.” Clearly she hasn’t spent much time at the Hammerskjold household.
[Note: the rest of this will be quite dry, but there is a cool word coming up, a possible value judgement on the OED’s part, and a betting tip.]

The Times also mentions this Merriam-Webster contest for WOTY which opened the process up to the masses. Here’s how they described it:

Below you’ll find an alphabetical list of twenty words culled from frequent hits to Merriam-Webster OnLine and some popular submissions to Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. We thought this would be an excellent way to cover the waterfront, since many great candidates for the 2007 Word of the Year are still in their infancy and haven’t quite proven themselves worthy of being entered in the dictionary

This description, however, shows the two biggest problems with the methodology: many of the new words do not meet the snuff of professional lexicographers, and many words are well established, really too established for such a contest. My dream is a system both open and closed; I’m not really sure if any of the contests come close.

Still one of the Merriam-Webster candidates is truly a terrific word: sardoodledum. I won’t reproduce the definition as their entry is really quite great; I will, however, add that the OED definition is in the same vein, but different: “A fanciful word used to describe well-wrought, but trivial or morally objectionable, plays considered collectively; the characteristic milieu in which such work is admired.” I’m partial to the OED’s definition, but only because I take “fanciful” to be someone’s qualitative judgement of the word.

For what it’s worth “facebook” will probably be the winner.

Perhaps because of my Anglophilia, or perhaps because I spend most of my life in an Ivory Tower slaving over illuminated manuscripts by the faint, flickering light of whale oil (being a dual citizen of Norway and Japan, I’m safe from perse-/prosecution–many thanks go to Rabbi Dr. Professor Jurgen Haverstam, DHL for pointing out the loopholes in international treaties), I somehow missed the fact that Webster’s New World College Dictionary had already named their word of the year. In fact, this happened back before it all began, way back on the cusp of November.

But since the winning entry, “Grass Station,” was so terrible, I have decided to speak against; not only contra the word, but also Webster’s standing in adjudicating the contest itself.

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. Read the rest of this entry »