Brow Beat

The Terrible “Word of the Year”


OMG - LOL, a sculpture by Michael Mandiberg.

Michael Mandiberg/Flickr

Voltaire famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Yesterday, Oxford University Press announced that, for the first time, their U.S. and U.K. lexicographers (along with “editorial, marketing, and publicity staff”) had chosen a “global word of the year.” That word is “squeezed middle.” As you may already have noticed, that is neither global, nor a word, nor of the year.

It was made popular by Ed Miliband, a British Labor MP who coined the political catchphrase in the fall of 2010 (i.e., last year). Miliband had some trouble defining the term; as BBC political editor Nick Robinson said at the time, the phrase is “deliberately vague”: Like most politicans, Miliband wanted nearly everyone to think he was “talking about them.”

The vagueness of the term is not a terrible problem—nor do I much mind that it is a phrase and not a word: As Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, argued this morning, really any “lexical item” should be eligible. It is somewhat distressing that the OUP press release referred to the phrase as a “compound,” since that’s a term with a specific grammatical meaning which does not apply in this case. (See Geoffrey K. Pullum, Ben Zimmer’s Language Log colleague, for more on that score.)

More troubling is the notion that the term is somehow “global.” Sure, the economic trouble to which the phrase alludes (albeit in a mealy-mouthed politician’s way) is global in scope. But the term itself remains provincial: It has not been picked up in any meaningful way by American politicians. (If Google search results are any indication, in the U.S. the phrase refers to cookie filling.) And even if it had been, that would hardly make the word global: English is spoken in South Asia, Canada, Australia, much of Africa, and elsewhere. The U.S. and the U.K. are but two of English’s most prominent outposts.

What’s more, the phrase helps demonstrate that, to quote George Bernard Shaw (I think), the U.S. and U.K. remain “divided by a common language.” Living in England for a few years about a decade ago, I frequently bumped into linguistic differences—and you needn’t live there to experience this: When I read Money, by Martin Amis, just after moving there, I had no idea why the narrator kept going on about women’s “pants” in such an erotically charged way.

So why would a bunch of lexicographers make such a dubious choice? I have a hunch it’s not their fault. As the OUP press release notes, marketing and publicity staff are also involved—and this has the decided air of a marketing decision. Of course, the “word of the year” is, essentially, a publicity push—and those responsible may have felt their choice had to make some nod to the prevailing mood of economic unrest.

Even in that case, though, there were other, better choices. One of the runners-up was “occupy,” which happens to be 1) global, 2) a word, and 3) of this year. It’s also politically pointed in a way that the wishy-washy “squeezed middle” is not. Perhaps that’s why it, too, was squeezed.