Word of the Year 2010: What Will It Be?

Posted by Mark Peters

Word of the Year 2010
From "Tea Party" to "boobquake" to "vuvuzela" to "refudiate," the candidates for 2010's Word of the Year tell us quite a lot about life today.

Most dictionaries, word-obsessed groups, and individual linguists have already selected their 2010 Word of the Year—the picks have included “refudiate,” “spillcam,” “austerity,” “WTF,” “junk,” and “no.” But the big one is still coming up: During its January 6 to 8 meeting in Pittsburgh, the American Dialect Society will make its choice for WOTY, plus many subcategories such as “Most Euphemistic” and “Most Likely to Succeed.” It’s the oldest such contest, and the only one that’s not trying to sell anything—except maybe a wider appreciation for new words and wordlust in general. For word nerds, ADS is the Oscars.

Everyone has his own idea of what a WOTY should be, but the ADS insists the word (or phrase) should be “new or newly popular in 2010,” “widely or prominently used in 2010,” and “indicative or reflective of the popular discourse.” The best previous winners have been words that rose to prominence and then ended up a part of the lexicon afterward—like “weapons of mass destruction” in 2003. Then again, it’s hard to argue that certain flash-in-the-pan winners weren’t good representatives of their year—like “Y2K” in 1999. Once, the ADS was able to symbolically nail a year while launching a word into the mainstream: in 2005, they (including me) voted Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” as WOTY well before it was popular. Lucky for us, “truthiness” exploded afterward, justifying our choice retroactively.

I won’t be in Pittsburgh to make my own soliloquies and rants on behalf of various words, so I thought I would take a look at five strong WOTY contenders. With apologies to spillcam, hashtag, robo-signer, WikiLeaks, hit the slide, and all the other words covered admirably by Grant Barrett, Nancy Friedman, and Ben Zimmer, the envelopes please...

Refudiate
Sarah Palin’s melding of “refute” and “refudiate” led to plenty of snickering jokes and a tsunami of attention, landing this goof on everybody’s radar. It was a great publicity-grabbing choice for New Oxford American Dictionary WOTY, since lots of people were pleased or perturbed at the choice, because they dislike Palin, worship Palin, or mistakenly thought the word was getting into NOAD itself. For the record, I think “refudiate” will get in dictionaries eventually. This politician-propelled term is potentially very useful, and it’s always tempting to hold onto a word with such a clear launching point (even though it was used pre-Palin too).
Pros: It went from nowhere to everywhere in 2010, and word blends are always among the most successful new words.
Cons: Aren’t we all a little Palin-ed out? She’s making Brett Favre feel fresh.

Inception
I saw Inception three times in the theater and loved it more than anything I’ve seen since Christ was a cowboy. So I'm a tad biased. Still, you can’t deny that the word “inception,” though old, felt new and was prominent in 2010.
Pros: Did I mention the movie rocked?
Cons: Much as I love the concept of breaking into people’s dreams to plant an idea, it’s pretty much limited to Inception-heads and real-world dream thieves funded by Obamacare (another WOTY candidate, I would say).

Vuvuzela
This word was everywhere as World Cup mania gripped the entire planet, even the United States, this summer. I still think the best comment on this annoying, buzzy, instrument of torture was the Twitter account “vuvuzelahorn,” which tweeted nothing but “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ-ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ-ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ-ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”
Pros: Another word that went supernova in 2010. It’s memorable, unique, and fun to say.
Cons: Thor willing, we shouldn’t have much use for this word in the future, so we might as well stop paying attention to it.

Boobquake
Perhaps you’ve forgotten Boobquake Day, but this word deserves mention for a few reasons: (1) it was part of a powerful, humorous protest again misogynistic insanity; (2) it was pro-science, and (3) it featured lots of boobs. No other word can match that trifecta. In 10 years, I predict Boobquake Day will rival Festivus as one of our most successful invented holidays.
Pros: All of the above. How can you oppose a boobquake?
Cons: I suppose if you think the WOTY should possess gravitas, you could oppose a boobquake.

Tea Party
This political movement went supernova in 2010, influencing the mid-term shellacking (FYI,  another WOTY candidate) suffered by the Democrats and turning up in eleventy-billion news stories. The term has had a literal meaning since the late 1700’s, and has taken on a surprisingly large number of other uses over the years, including a hubbub or brouhaha, a bong-soaked gathering (in reference to the weed meaning of “tea”), and, as the OED puts it, “bland, insipid, trite, trivial.” For that sense, the OED collects references to “dull English tea-party stuff” and “Liberal do-gooders with a tea-party attitude towards race” that sure don’t apply to the Tea Party of today.
Pros: Mega-ubiquitousness.  
Cons: Because of the politics involved, this choice would cause irrational glee and anger, two cans of worms that might be best left unopened.

What's your choice for the Word of the Year 2010?