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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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"No, it's not, it's important," counters Richard Bailey, another professor emeritus, from the University of Michigan. "Language is an index of our social identity."

"The point of the word of the year thing is that choosing words reflects reality," says Jesse Sheidlower, the author of "F***." "If you choose wrong, you've failed in some important way."

At the opposite end of the hotel, in a noisy lounge, linguist students from William & Mary drain their martini glasses and hoot and holler about the word of the year. They think a variation of "Kanye" should've been in the running and they are irritated that "unfriend" came up as a possible nominee. The Oxford English Dictionary already made that blunder.

"We make fine semantic decisions that our parents would never make," says Kira Allmann, 22, a linguistics major. " 'Un' is like 'opposite' whereas 'de' connotes 'taking away.' "

"You're dealing with older white men from academia," says Erica Wicks, 22, earlier in the day, just after the nominating session. She and Elyssa Winzeler, 24, are editors of the Linguist List in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"I wonder how often 'Dracula sneeze' is used by younger people," Winzeler says.

"People who are 40 years older than us say they use 'search' more than 'Google,' but we don't," Wicks says. "But -- what's the line? History is made by those who show up."

And the winner is . . .

"I'd like to speak against all of these arguments for 'tweet' because they are all over 140 characters long," says someone back in that dim, beige, boxy room Friday evening, in which final arguments are made and raised hands are counted.

The jokes keep on coming. A couples therapist makes a case for "hiking the Appalachian trail" because she appreciates the euphemism, and her husband, with expert timing, stands up to second the motion. There's a posse of rebel linguists who won't let "sea kittens" and "Dracula sneeze" die. A gentleman in a gray suit argues against "H1N1" as word of the year because it would mean succumbing to the pork lobby. There are speeches against "9/11" as word of the decade because it would mean the terrorists win. Every two minutes someone shouts, "Fail!"

"I think my life has been more affected by 'Google' than '9/11,' " says a college student.

"People are currently tweeting that 'tweet' is being nominated for word of the year," observes someone else.

After much discussion, the final vote. A year and a decade, both recently laid to rest, receive the briefest kind of epitaph. The two words meant to evoke the feeling of this moment years from now: "tweet" for 2009 and "Google" for the Aughts.

After making some history, there's only one thing to do: pick up the free tote bag, head down the hall to the reception and suck down some chardonnay.


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