American Dialect Society picks 'tweet,' 'Google' as top words for 2009, decade

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At the 84th annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Baltimore, linguists shared what their top words of the year were.

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010

BALTIMORE -- "Anyone for 'sexting'?" asks the 69-year-old man in the navy blazer and brown loafers.

"Well if you give me your number," comes a voice from the crowd, which erupts in laughter.

Bunch of comedians, these linguists and lexicographers. They've crammed themselves in a dim, beige, boxy meeting room at the Hilton to vote on a word of the year and a word of the decade, a solemn task that falls to just about everyone these days.

Other outlets have already named words of the year for 2009 -- Merriam-Webster picked "admonish" (huh?) and the Oxford English Dictionary went with "unfriend" (hrmph) -- but the 121-year-old American Dialect Society thinks of itself as the granddaddy of them all, the first and last word in words of the year. Its hour-long quest must yield two words that are accurate, exciting and durable (never mind that their first-ever word of the year, in 1990, was the now-regrettable "bushlips"). Two words must satisfy both the crusty generation of veteran scholars and the giddy linguistic students whose jargon is a step ahead. It's a tricky exercise, and the result always feels slightly off, given that words are evolving at a frenzied pace and everyone has become his own lexicographer with his own definitions.

There's no smaller time capsule than a single word. In 2000, the American Dialect Society picked "web" to represent the 1990s, "jazz" for the 20th century and "she" for the millennium. Ten letters can evoke an entire epoch.

This past year can be distilled into single words using the top look-ups on Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, which gets 1.3 billion page views a year. "Empathy" shot up during the Sonia Sotomayor hearings. "Philanderer" was a hit-magnet during the Mark Sanford confessions. Michael Jackson's death sent the world scrambling for "emaciated."

The top look-ups are the linguistic nerve endings of people's curiosities at any given moment, says Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster. He regularly tweets the top look-ups to his 2,000 followers. Most recent blockbuster: "indigenous," which has trended since the premiere of the movie "Avatar."

Making these distinctions is "a way to have stillness in the midst of chaos," says Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst for the Global Language Monitor, whose media-analysis software made "Twitter" the word of 2009 and "global warming" the word of the decade. "You can take a look at a group of words and say, 'These defined what happened.' "

Merriam-Webster adds 100 words to its database each year. Urban Dictionary draws 2,000 reader submissions a day. Global Language Monitor calculates that a new English-language word is born every 98 minutes and that 1.58 billion people are re-sculpting English as they use it as a universal linguistic currency.

We're living in a time of wildfire word creation, with no gatekeeper for slang and no way to settle on a term that will please everybody, says Jack Lynch, author of "The Lexicographer's Dilemma." Purists have always lamented the erosion of "proper" language, but it's a lexicographer's duty to describe the flux, not prescribe a paradigm.

"Language has been going to hell since forever," Lynch says. "Let's not worry about English. It's been doing fine for 1,500 years and it's going to outlive us all."

Steve Kleinedler has a tattoo of a phonetic vowel chart on his back. He yanks up his shirt to reveal the spider-webby design between his shoulder blades. He got the tattoo three weeks ago, which left time for it to heal before the Linguistic Society of America's conference, which started Thursday and provides the stage for the American Dialect Society's votes.


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