There is a major decision coming up that will truly define the year 2012. Yes, it's almost time for the American Dialect Society to once again vote on the Word of the Year. Will it be selfie? Hate-watching? Superstorm? Double down? Fiscal cliff? Or (shudder) YOLO?
Ben Zimmer is a language columnist for The Boston Globe and chairman of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee. He tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the Word of the Year can be either a word or a phrase, as long as it's achieved new prominence in 2012. "You might have heard about YOLO, the acronym for 'you only live once.' YOLO caught on this year as a bit of youth slang that young people are already a little sick of."
A selfie is a self-portrait photograph, usually posted to a social networking site — and used most memorably by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (or, let's be honest, one of her aides) in a humorous message to the Texts from Hillary Tumblr account. "Another word that I was introduced to this year which I quite like, hate-watching, which describes the masochistic act of continuing to watch a TV show even if you hate it."
And, of course, there were the old-fashioned words that resurfaced this year, like malarkey, popularized by Vice President Joe Biden in a debate with Paul Ryan. "That's a great Irish-American word that's been around for about a century ... it's such a great evocative word, and it grabbed people's interest," Zimmer says. "It turns out it was Irish-American newspaper writers who popularized it in the early 20th century."
Some words captured public attention for sadder reasons, like superstorm, coined to describe Hurricane Sandy. "Someone from the National Weather Service actually suggested frankenstorm, because it was a hybrid of different weather systems, like Frankenstein's monster, and it was also going to hit around Halloween," Zimmer says. But many news organizations considered Frankenstorm too lighthearted in the wake of the disaster, so the consensus settled on superstorm.
Last year, the concepts of the 1 percent and the 99 percent were on everyone's mind — giving rise, in a way, to this year's prominent percentage: 47. "If you think about the impact of last year's Occupy movement, the idea of breaking the population into percentages based on some sort of economic factor was powerful," Zimmer says. When Mitt Romney was caught on tape decrying 47 percent of the American electorate as "dependent on government," he adds, that became "a real touchstone of the election."
Gambling metaphors were also big this year, particularly doubling down, a high-risk, high-reward play in blackjack, which can be used in either positive or negative ways — such as when former President Bill Clinton described Romney as someone who will "double down on trickle-down" economics.
There's no clear front-runner among all these choices, Zimmer says. "Last year, I think it was pretty obvious going in that Occupy was the prohibitive favorite. Certainly, the term fiscal cliff has been used a lot in the last few months, and that could end up being the winner, in the same way that, for instance, bailout was the winner for the American Dialect Society four years ago. It could be coming from pop culture, or the tech world — there's a lot of possible choices this year."