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.

Misogyny Fuels Australian Debate

It’s rare when the redefining of a word in a dictionary finds itself at the centre of a political storm. But so it is in a spectacular row in Australia.

First, the background. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard swept across YouTube recently following her extraordinary attack on opposition leader Tony Abbott in parliament. The attack followed the resignation of speaker Peter Slipper, who had been accused of sexual harassment. Opposition moves to unseat him saw Ms Gillard launch an attack on Mr Abbott’s own values.

Her tirade included the particularly memorable “If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives; he needs a mirror.”

There was a lot of aftermath. One strand was about semantics. Ms Gillard had used misogyny, which means a hatred of women, to mean prejudice against women. Had it been a lack of understanding of the correct meaning? Or had it been a deliberate conflation of the two senses in order to score a political point?

And then the Macquarie ditionary came along. Australia’s foremost authority on language decided to extend its definition of misogyny to a synonym for sexism, an ‘entrenched prejudice against women’, to reflect the fact that the usage of the word has changed.

Outcry? You bet. While linguists might have applauded the dictionary editors for being responsive to language change and acting accordingly, they would also have said it was a bit late, with the Oxford English Dictionary pointing out it had added the new sense 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Ms Gillard’s opponents cried foul and anger over the fact that dictionaries should not be making political points by redefining words and it was not up to the Prime Minister to misuse a word and then expect lexicographers to back her up. The Macquarie editor was forced to issue a follow-up statement further defending the decision.

There has been much debate worldwide about the word misogyny, the word sexism, their worldwide usage, whether they are the same or different, whether dictionaries should make changes in this way, and so on.

I suspect that the outcome to all of this is that even if the word misogyny had only previously meant hatred of women in people’s minds, it will now be entrenched for all with the sense of sexism as well, and that this incident has simply confirmed an evolution in meaning that has been taking place over the last 20 or 30 years. And of course, that is what language does. It is just a little uncommon for that gradual shift to become the subject of such frenzied international debate. But I think it is fair to say that misogyny is now a word with a definitive new meaning.