The Year in Words: the good, the bad, and the trending

It’s time for the inevitable roundup of the year in words: 2011’s crop of neologisms, buzz words, clichés, most frequently misused, misunderstood, misspelled, and abused words, and as wordsmith Richard Nordquist puts it, even words that inspire logomisia—the strong, dislike of a word based on its sound, meaning, usage, or associations.

Nordquist has collected a list of “200 words that ticked you off in 2010.” If readers don’t see their personal linguistic bêtes noires of the year in the ample glossary he has compiled, he invites them to add their own in the comment section of his blog. Nordquist’s list addresses a wide range of irritating linguistic errors and excesses that includes spelling gaffes (writing cold slaw instead of cole slaw, wax paper instead of waxed paper, and ice tea instead of iced tea), comprehension failures (for instance, substituting “for all intensive purposes” for “for all intents and purposes,” or saying something is a mute point rather than a moot point), pronunciation (FYI, it’s birthday, not birfday), and relentless reliance on expressions of the moment such as “thinking outside the box” and “the perfect storm.” According to his list, a few of the hackneyed phrases we should be steering clear of in 2012 are “come on board,” “win-win,” and “you guys.” Briticisms are not popular with Nordquist either; the list decries the rise of at least two popular British expressions in American discourse: “gobsmacked” and “gone missing.”

The American Dialect Society has yet to publish their list of the words that best captured the zeitgeist of 2011, but “occupy” and “bunga-bunga” appear to be front-runners. The Oxford Dictionary has chosen “squeezed middle” and the Global Language Monitor, an analytics firm based in Austin, Texas, has chosen “occupy” as this year’s top word, “Arab Spring” as this year’s top phrase, and Steve Jobs as this year’s most bandied-about name. The Global Language Monitor  uses its proprietary “Narrative Tracker” that analyzes vocabulary and topic trends in the Internet, the blogosphere, social networking sites, and the world’s top 75,000 print and electronic media outlets to provide an ongoing picture of what’s trending in the English language. They even keep track of Google Analytics’ constantly revised total of words currently in use in the English language at even given moment. Another recent trend is the use of “word clouds” to visually illustrate the number of times specific words crop up in a given discourse. Earlier this year, the Spanish newspaper el País provided a word cloud of the resignation speech given by beleaguered president of the Community of Valencia Francisco Camps, who was forced out of office by his own political party following his indictment of bribery charges. While they may be seen as superficial page fillers on a case-by-case basis, word clouds can be used to visually grasp the shifting linguistic elements of political rhetoric over time.

Hashtags seem to have occupied a large portion of this year’s collective discourse. This year’s number one hashtag was #egypt followed by #tigerblood, a word plucked from one of the series of bizarre statements made by Charlie Sheen as he publicly plummeted from the dizzy heights of celebrity stardom into an absolute state of pariahood. As usual, politicians’ linguistic blunders also kept the public amused all year. Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” is bound to remain in the public’s mind for a while. Then there is the question of politicians’ communication skills in general. Latin America watchers have been wondering how much longer Chilean president Sebastian Pinera will continue to spice his public appearances with inappropriate jokes. Even his wife protested when he publicly quipped “When a politicians says yes, he means maybe; when he says maybe, he means no, and if he says no, he’s not a politician. When a lady says no, she means maybe; when she says maybe, she means yes, and if she says yes, she’s not a lady.” Although president of the Autonomous Community of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre is a niece of the late Catalan poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, holds the title of Countess of Murillo and is both a “grandee” of Spain and a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, she is popularly known for her undiplomatic and less than poetic public pronouncements. A letter she sent to local school teachers in September explaining the budget cuts proposed by her administration was quickly returned covered in red ink by striking educators who delighted in pointing out her grammatical errors. Based on my own experience, I must say that Aguirre’s tendency to capitalize words based on nothing more than a personal whim may well be the most common vice of contemporary Spanish writers, but any letter issued by a government office should be checked for the appropriate use of accents, as the inclusion or omission of an accent is apt to change the meaning of a Spanish word.

If the blogosphere has made everyone on Earth a potential commentator, it stands to reason that it should make at least a few of these good folks potential grammarians as well, although I’m not holding my breath for this to happen. I recently read an interesting post by a young blogger who explained to his readers, “My parent’s generation have a laudable simplicity about them. They are sometimes frustrating, asking us to hook up their internet for fix their computers, but those things are essentially foreign to them. Our parents don’t really belong in the digital world, they just visit it.” An interesting thought, but the author should know that generation is not a plural noun and realize that the phrase “for fix their computers” just doesn’t fly. If information technology is essentially foreign to his parents, the rules of grammar seem to be essentially foreign to him. He goes on observe, “My niece and nephew’s computer skills already rival their parents, and none of them are over the age of six,” a really comic sentence if you seriously try to visualize the situation he describes. I hope his supposedly antediluvian parents gave him a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style for Christmas.

As the Times of London points out, “The Google generation finds it hard to imagine life before the world wide web.” This year, one of professor Leo Enticknap’s cinema students at the University of Leeds proffered the opinion that a certain political group had “used the Internet to publicise their (nominally admissible in British English) cause, just like the French Resistence [sic] during the Second World War.” The same article notes that John Wilson, a placements tutor at the University of Central Lancashire, was sent the following message by a student requesting a reference: “Will you please be a referee for a job for which I am appalling?”  These mistakes should not be entirely blamed on the “Google” generation. As Lynne Truss points outs in her delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, today’s ignorance of grammar and punctuation rules has its pernicious roots in the 1970s, when educators in the English-speaking world collectively decided that “grammar and spelling got in the way of self-expression.” Truss insightfully notes, “In the 1970s, no educationist would have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the key-pad of the mobile phone. But now, look what’s happened: everyone’s a writer! . . . People who have been taught nothing about their own language are (contrary to educational expectations) spending all their hours attempting to string sentences together for the edification of others.”

Students aren’t the only ones out there butchering the English language. A member of the American Dialect Society recently circulated a hilarious compendium of spelling and grammar gems supposedly drafted by English-speaking Christian parishioners that include “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community. Smile at someone who is hard to love. Say ‘Hell’ to someone who doesn’t care much about you,” “Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered,” and “The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict.”

Protest posters are another perennial source of linguistic bloopers. While I have no desire to come down hard on the author of the modest poster informing Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, “We fade up. Go to hill,” pictured above, I would have expected native speakers—especially those purporting to defend the English language—to make fewer errors. People who seek the media spotlight should be aware that bad grammar gone viral reflects poorly on the movements they so vehemently support. If anyone is shopping around for a new year’s resolution, resolving to pay more attention to communications directed towards others might be a good pick. Good grammar and mutual tolerance go a long way in my book, and I’d like to see more evidence of both in the coming year. Meanwhile, a review of some of the funnier bloopers of 2011 offers us the opportunity to end an especially contentious and challenging year with a chuckle and a smile.