Linguists Gone Wild!

Why “wardrobe malfunction” wasn’t the Word of the Year.

OAKLAND, Calif.—You know you’re at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual convention when the woman on the next treadmill at the fitness center is talking not about bond indexes or shopping tips, as would be the case back home, but about recent research on binding theory in head-driven phrase structure grammar.

The American Dialect Society, which meets in association with the Linguistic Society of America, is the main scholarly group devoted to the study of language in America, and most of the time, it devotes itself to serious concerns. This year’s sessions included papers on the current status of Texas German, the vowel characteristics of Atlanta speech, and an analysis of prosodic rhythm in African-American English. But once in a while we like to blow off steam, and we do this by voting for the Words of the Year, in various categories—Most Useful, Creative, Unnecessary, Outrageous, and Euphemistic; Most and Least Likely To Succeed; and an overall Word of the Year. Newspapers love this and cover our selections as though choosing these words is our main purpose. This is partly our fault; no one really cares unless we pretend that These Are Important Words That Define Us as Americans. Still, that’s marginally better than the alternate interpretation: This Is How Scholars Waste Their Time When They Could Be Doing Real Work.

Other year-end word lists tend to be judgmental, listing played-out words no one wants to hear again, but the ADS tries to make truly representative selections, whether we like the words or not. The first time we tried this, in 1990, our enthusiasm for novel coinages got the best of us, and we chose bushlips, a forgotten pun on bullshit based on the first Bush’s invitation to read his lips. Our embarrassment has been somewhat mitigated by our improved track record since then: We’ve opted for such genuinely representative terms as mother of all X in 1991; Not! in 1992; e- in 1998; chad in 2000; and metrosexual last year. (The complete history can be found here.)

This year, as always, we had to hash over the basics. It’s not actually “Word” of the Year; it can be a compound, phrase, prefix, or so forth, but we know we can’t get away with promoting a “Lexical Item” of the Year. It’s also not about new words, just words that were particularly prominent. We try to keep the words relatively new anyway and avoid well-established terms that happen to have become widespread, such as, for example, tsunami. (Typically it’s the lexicographers—not the dialectologists—who keep an eye out for such suggestions; this year my Oxford colleague Grant Barrett, who runs a new words blog, was the one to call out, “No, hinkyisn’t new, it goes back to 1956!” when necessary.)

The WotY process has two stages: a morning meeting, in which nominations are sorted into categories, and the afternoon vote, when things get decided. Turnout is light in the morning, when we’re usually clustered around a table; by the afternoon, we generally move to an open room to accommodate the crowds. At this year’s morning meeting, the suggestions were plentiful. Military terms were prominent—we saw hillbilly armor and backdoor draft. Blog, 2002’s Most Likely To Succeed, returned in forms like blogosphere and blogorrhea. The culture of blogging has also spawned related words like pajamahadeen, which refers to bloggers in their bedclothes who criticize the mainstream media and which won Most Creative later in the day. In the Most Euphemistic category, Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction seemed like a lock until Bill Frawley, the dean of the Columbia College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University, suggested badly sourced, which was used by Colin Powell and others to mean “false.”

The Most Outrageous category is tricky; we never agree whether it’s the word itself that’s outrageous (typically for having some vulgar element, as in 2003’s winner, cliterati, for “prominent feminists”) or the concept (as with 2002’s neuticles, “false testicles for neutered pets”). This year the strongest contender was santorum, defined (and heavily promoted) by sex writer Dan Savage—in a campaign to besmirch the name of right-wing Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum—as “the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex.” We dismissed one potential problem—that newspapers wouldn’t print the term if it won—on the grounds that we shouldn’t censor ourselves. And indeed, in the afternoon’s voting, santorum did win, but many newspapers simply skipped this category in their coverage. So much for academic freedom.

During the afternoon voting, everyone agreed that Most Unnecessary had particularly good candidates. The suffix -based, as in faith-based or reality-based, was widely disliked. “It’s its own opposite,” said Bill Kretzschmar, editor of the Linguistic Atlas of America. “If it’s reality-based, it’s not real.” The poison erototoxin, which, according to the Senate testimony of antisex “researcher” Judith Reisman, is released into the brain when a person looks at pornography, was a strong candidate, in large part because no such toxin exists. But carb-friendly—when used to mean “not containing carbohydrates”—took the prize. “It’s meaningless,” said phonetician David “Not the Rock Star” Bowie, “unless you’re saying you’re a friend of carbs by not eating them.”

In Most Euphemistic, we argued about the ballot’s brief definition of wardrobe malfunction—”unanticipated exposure of bodily parts.” “It wasn’t unanticipated by the utterer,” objected Yale’s Larry Horn. Former ADS President Dennis Preston retorted, “Who was the udder-er?” causing the room to collapse in laughter. Still, as anticipated in the morning, badly sourced was the winner by a crushing 50-15 margin.

In Most Likely To Succeed, Anne Curzan, editor of the Journal of English Linguistics, nominated crunk, a rap term referring variously to a state of rowdiness, excitement, or intoxication and also used as the name for a style of rap music. But my nominee mash-up, a blend of songs into a cohesive musical whole, was also strong, as was the red state, blue state, purple state of our current political map. We debated how to combine red state, blue state, purple state into a single term. “Cyan?” suggested American Heritage’s Steve Kleinedler. The colored states took the runoff.

The Word of the Year itself is nominated from the floor; wardrobe malfunction, red/blue/purple states, and mash-up were carried over from previous rounds. New candidates were meet-up, for “a Web-organized meeting,” and flip-flopper, which was disliked but grudgingly agreed to have been linguistically prominent in the past year.

In the end, red/blue/purple states beat runners-up wardrobe malfunction and flip-flopper, 36 to 19 to 11. The excitement over, we ambled off to the annual ADS cocktail party to ready ourselves for our return to the serious business of language and the next day’s papers on “Upper Midwest Obstruent Variation” and “Acoustic Characteristics of Utah’s card/cord Merger.”