The Top Words of 2012

And so the time has come for Wordability to reveal its word of the year. But I’m not quite going to do that. Because I don’t think that one word does justice to 2012. So in total, Wordability has five words of the year. And a new book – but more of that anon.

The danger of picking one word is that it only tells some of the story. The Oxford Dictionary choice of Omnishambles absolutely gives us a word that says a great deal about 2012. But what about the Olympics, and that incredible feeling that careered across Britain throughout that glorious summer. To ignore that is to miss a part of the year.

And should we go with a new word or something old which has resurfaced? Wordability has shown over the year that brand new words and redefinitions of existing words are equally important when it comes to semantic change in the English language. So I think it is important to include both.

So without further faffing, here are my top five words of the year:

New Words of the Year

Mother Flame: The journey of the Olympic Flame started the Olympics for real for most people in the UK, and the crowds who lined the streets throughout the country to see it were surprisingly large and enthusiastic. The whole process spawned a raft of new words associated with the procession.  Mother Flame, the original flame travelling with the torch and used to relight it when it went out, was my favourite.

Eastwooding: An odd choice? Yes. Eastwooding as a word was never destined to last more than five minutes. And yet what a five minutes. Spawned by Clint Eastwood’s extraordinary empty chair conversation with Barack Obama at the Republican Convention, Eastwooding became a social phenomenon as people raced to share photographs of themselves interacting with unoccupied items of furniture. I have chosen it as a word of the year because in many ways it is the quintessential demonstration of how a new word can arrive and thrive in our interconnected world. And then, just as quickly, fall off a cliff.

Gangnam Style: The music sensation of the year and a phrase that has entered the language. You only have to hear of anybody dancing Gangnam Style to know what kind of performance they are putting in, and plenty of famous people have been queuing up for their five minutes of strutting their horse-like stuff.

 Re-emergence of the Year

There were two contenders for this. Omnishambles, as we know, curried favour elsewhere. But I have plumped for Ineptocracy, a term for a form of government in which those utterly incapable seem to grab the top jobs. Like Omnishambles, it sums up the slightly random state of Government which seems to prevail in many countries this year, and the attitude towards them from the people. And from a Wordability point of view, Ineptocracy is the most viewed article and most searched for term across the blog in 2012, so it is clearly a word demanding of attention.

Redefinition of the Year

No dispute about this one – the furore over Misogyny in Australia takes this award. The global argument this led to about what the true definition of the word is, and whether Australian lexicographers were right to amend their definition, really encapsulates what semantic shifts tell us about changes in society.

So these are my top five, but so many other words have caught my attention – Goalgasm, Lesula, Papple, Marmageddon, Swapportunity to name just a few of my favourites – that even a list like this does not do it justice.

So I have produced a book of the words of the year, which is available right now from the Kindle Store on Amazon, just by clicking here. In it you will find more on all these words, and a great deal more. It’s a portrait of not only the language change of the year but a picture of what has really mattered to us as a society over the last 12 months.


A Year Full of Bluster

I find myself at odds with following the announcement of its word of the year. The online dictionary has gone with Bluster as its word of 2012.

The choice is unexpected, as was Tergiversate in 2011. But it’s not that I mind the word that much, or the reasons for choosing it. I always prefer a word of the year to be something coined in that year, but made it clear last year that this was not a prerequisite in its selection procedure, so I will let it go.

The reasons for the selection are cogent – it has been a year of political bluster across the globe and meteorological bluster from the skies. So it is a neat word which ties together the controllable and uncontrollable elements of the last 12 months.

But what I really disagree with was the editors’ assertion that this has been a year which has been “lexicographically quiet”, to borrow their phrase. As the entries in Wordability should have demonstrated, 2012 has been anything but. Not only have there been some entertaining words coined in 2012, confirming the delicious flexibility of the language, but linguistic issues have also sparked significant debates, showing that language matters to people to a high degree. Just look back on Misogyny, Gay Marriage or Swedish Pronouns to see what I mean. It has been a year when issues of meaning and definition have hit the mainstream media.

So maybe Bluster is a good choice after all. It’s just that the bluster has extended to semantic matters as well.

A Shambles of a Year

In many ways, the Oxford Dictionary choice of Omnishambles as the word of the year is an excellent one. It’s a great word, it sums up the mood of the times and it has become hugely popular during 2012.

But I can’t help being a little disappointed. As I said some months ago when the word flew back into public consciousness, it is not an original 2012 word. Omnishambles was actually coined in 2009 in the political comedy The Thick of It, and only now has it crossed from the Westminster to the global village. It would have been much more satisfying if the OED word of the year was one that came into being this year, as previous winners have been, rather than one which has simply been popularised.

I also wonder about the Oxford relationship with Labour leader Ed Miliband. Last year’s winner, Squeezed Middle, was coined by Mr Miliband, while the first recorded use this year also came from him, during Prime Minister’s Questions. Clearly we need to listen to what young Ed says next year if we want to take bets on the winner for 2013.

I was certainly surprised by the OED’s US word of the year, GIF, a computing term which has been around for a quarter of a century. They said it had really come into its own in 2012. But I must say in the tracking I have been doing throughout the year, it was not something I had really paid attention to.

There were some good words on the two shortlists, with Games Makers, To Medal, and Mobot representing the Olympics, and pleb reminding us of Andrew Mitchell. In the US I was pleased to see perennial Wordability favourite Nomophobia, fear of losing your mobile phone, under consideration.

Of course it is easy to carp. What are your words of the year, I hear you saying? Well fear not. I shall reveal my words of the year in the next couple of weeks, together with a very special announcement. And even though Omnishambles has certainly been on my shortlist as well, I can confirm now that it won’t be the winner.

Nerds Fight Back in Sweden

I’m finding Sweden increasingly entertaining. I’ve never actually been there, my daughter has made me sit through Mamma Mia too many times and I have recently battled through more IKEA furniture than you can shake a flat-packed bedpost at, but nonetheless, my affection for the country grows. Purely linguistically, that is.

Earlier this year, an edict suggesting the creation of the word Hen as an asexual pronoun caused an international stir. Now, language has once again proved deliciously controversial and prompted wider questions about whether English should follow suit.

The dispute is over the word ‘Nerd’ in the official dictionary of the Swedish Academy, the Svenska Akademiens Ordlista. The definition, “a simplistic and ridiculous person, dork”, or various translations of the original “enkelspårig och löjeväckande person, tönt” has caused anger among the United Nerds of Sweden (OK, I’m not sure that such an organisation exists, but wouldn’t it be great if it did).

Anyway, more than 5,000 people have now signed Nörduppropet, an online petition arguing that the definition needs to change to reflect the drive and commitment of the average nerd, and the page is swamped with positively-spun alternatives which stress the hard work, dedication and zeal of nerds around the world.

So is the definition fair, and should we be similarly bashing the doors of English dictionary makers to make them revisit their definitions? Let’s have a look. While the Oxford Dictionary has a sense of “a single-minded expert in a particular field”, its primary definition is “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”. And is not much better, with “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person”, though it does also have the computer nerd sense.

Of course we are not going to start campaigning to change this. The reason? The definitions are accurate. Nerd is a pejorative word. While it undoubtedly covers the hard work and dedication of large numbers of people, and the world would be different if it wasn’t for the work of computer nerds who have created the technology we live by today, the sense of social inadequacy is just as much a part of the meaning as all of the positive connotations. I think the petition suggests that people don’t really like admitting that about themselves. There is nothing wrong with calling yourself a nerd, but in order to do it positively, you have to be slightly tongue in cheek about it and admit that it carries negative as well as positive connotations. I will freely admit I am a word nerd, which makes me frankly irritating at times. However, I don’t see myself ever signing a petition to change the meaning of a word when it has been rendered accurately.

Sweden’s dictionary makers perhaps need to add an extra sense to their definition to cover the hard work. But if they were to completely change the meaning, it would lose its quintessential nerdiness, and indeed accuracy. And I don’t think nerds would ever really stand for something that wasn’t absolutely correct.

What is the Future for Gangnam Style?

I read an interesting piece a few weeks ago about the Gangnam Style phenomenon. It said that linguists were doubtless having a fine time working out how it had become an idiomatic expression.

The question for me is – has it become an idiomatic expression? For those of you unfamiliar with the worldwide hit (and to my shame I must admit I was ignorant of it until recently, when a South Korean friend showed the video to my wife), Gangnam Style is a Korean music and dance phenomenon which has swept the world. Dictionary definitions, such as they are, refer to it as a Korean neologism for the lifestyle of those in the upscale Gangnam district of Seoul, while the wider definition is emerging as replicating the leg wagging, horse-like dance moves of the international smash hit.

But has it become wider than that yet, in a linguistic sense? When people refer to doing things Gangnam Style, are they talking about taking on an attitude and a way of doing things, or are they just referring to people copying the dance. I think it is the latter. At the moment, the internet is awash with soldiers, prisoners and Eton pupils performing their own takes on the song. But that’s currently all it is, albeit on a vast scale.

So while Gangnam Style will undoubtedly be cited as one of the words of the year when it comes to wrapping up the language of 2012, its meaning is likely to remain fixed to musical interpretations, rather than something which has become more entrenched in society.

The Swiftkey Way To Learning New Words

The number of new words contributed to the English language by technology is well known. But how does a company which provides technology to help with language and communication cope with the ever-expanding tide of vocabulary?

Swiftkey in action

Swiftkey has garnered praise and awards for its predictive text app. Its nifty software allows users of Android devices to speed up their typing by anticipating what they are going to type and then suggesting it for them.

I wondered how the Swiftkey database keeps up to date, to ensure that it can offer users the newest words on the block. So I asked Dr Caroline Gasperin, who leads a team of eight language processing engineers responsible for most language-related tasks at the London-based company.

She explained that Swiftkey learns an individual’s linguistic habits, and that by extension this grows its global database as a result.

“Your SwiftKey will learn any word you teach it, you only have to type it once and it will be included in your personal language model on your device,” she said.

“Through the Personalisation feature – which allows you to sync it with your Gmail, Facebook and Twitter accounts – and through continuous use, SwiftKey learns the words you use and the contexts in which you use them so that its predictions and corrections are based on your own way of writing.”

This learning can then feed into the overall word database to help the word corpus grow. Caroline said: “We’ve started putting in place the infrastructure for learning new words from our user base.

“As users use the Personalisation feature of SwiftKey, we are able to collect statistics about the words they use and identify words that we did not know before. We are putting in place a semi-automatic process to identify which of those words could become part of a standard dictionary and consequently become part of our downloadable language modules.

“This process consists of observing the frequency of use of words over time: words which used to have few occurrences across our user base, but which start becoming more frequent over time, and which are mentioned by several of our users instead of by just one or a few, are considered as good candidates for being added to our dictionaries.

“It’s worth adding we take our users’ privacy extremely seriously and have policies in place to safeguard this. We do not process a user’s data personally.”

Dr Caroline Gasperin
Dr Caroline Gasperin

So has the way that new words are assimilated changed, and is the process quicker than before? Caroline said: “We look into how many different people have used an unknown word in order to consider it as a potential new word in the language instead of a personal word.

“We take our users’ privacy seriously, so we’ve developed ways to discover words in wide use instead of focusing on single users.

“We haven’t followed users’ language use for long enough to know whether new words are being adopted faster than before, but we are working on getting those statistics.”

I have long since believed that new words are being created and accepted into the language considerably quicker than before, with technology the principal driver behind that evolution. It would be interesting to revisit Swiftkey at some point soon to see whether those promised statistics back up that theory. And the company also gives us a very clear steer about how its core business has to adapt to the ever-changing delights of the English language.