Word of the Year 2012

UK Word of the Year

A common misconception about the work of a lexicographer is that we sit around in the manner of a cabal each week and argue about what words to include or reject. The fantasy is that we each suggest a word or two and then, after a heated debate, vote, with the result that some words emerge victorious and begin the journey to the dictionary page, while those that are blackballed are consigned to lexical oblivion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

However, we lexicographers do do something approximating this when we meet to choose the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. We sit round a table, reviewing words which have made a big impact on the English language over the past year, and try to pick the stand-out one.

The refreshing element from a lexicographer’s point of view is that we don’t have to try and gauge whether the word will be a flash in the pan, a one hit wonder, sticking around for a short while before fizzling out, or whether it might have some lasting currency. These words won’t necessarily find themselves in an Oxford Dictionary anytime soon – many will be far too new or ephemeral – but that isn’t really the point. Instead, we are able to focus on the new additions to our vocabulary each year that have been influenced by popular culture, sport, politics, and other current affairs.

Without further ado, though, let’s look at 2012’s UK Word of the Year.

Ta da! And the winner is. . .

Omnishambles! Coined by the writers of the satirical television programme The Thick Of It, an omnishambles is a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, and is characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.

Why omnishambles? Well, it was a word everyone liked, which seemed to sum up so many of the events over the last 366 days in a beautiful way. It’s funny, it’s quirky, and it has broken free of its fictional political beginnings, firstly by spilling over into real politics, and then into other contexts. If influence is any indication of staying power, it has already staked its claim by being linguistically productive in its own right, producing a number of related coinages. While many of them are probably humorous one-offs, their very existence shows that the omnishambles itself has entered at least the familiar parlance, if not quite the common parlance. And for every Romneyshambles (coined in the UK to describe US presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s doubts that London had what it took to host a successful Olympic Games) and omnivoreshambles (detailing the furore over the proposed badger cull in England and Wales) there is the far more sober adjective omnishambolic.

Not just a one-horse race

One thing that became apparent quite early on in our decision-making process was that 2012 has been a year of contrasts, which meant that our decision was no foregone conclusion. There were lots of candidates that made our shortlist, and there were plenty of lows for the language to accommodate as well as highs. Eurogeddon, for example, referring to the potential financial collapse of those European countries that have adopted the Euro. Or the military phrase green-on-blue denoting an attack made on one’s side by forces that are seen as being neutral.

But it was also a great year of celebration and sheer joy at the exploits and achievements of elite athletes who wowed us with their skill and dedication. Arguably the event of the year in the UK, it is unsurprising that the Olympics also left its mark on our language. Where would the event have been without the Games Makers, those volunteers who ensured that the games progressed smoothly and all those attending were able to do so with ease? People up and down the country (and perhaps throughout the world) were Bolting and doing the Mobot as they celebrated the victories of those eponymous athletes.

The Olympics even gave greater prominence to two words which are not new, but which manage every few years to cause furious debate: the verbs to medal and to podium. In the sporting sense, medal has been around since the 1960s; podium is not quite so old. In Olympic contexts, both have very similar meanings. After all, if you podium, you are winning either a gold, silver, or bronze medal. Which is the same as medalling. It’s only when you get to other sporting events – where medals aren’t awarded – that podium comes into its own (and has a meaning akin to being placed). Tempting as it was to choose one of the Olympic words, it remains to be seen whether (m)any of them will have a wider application, although they helped embellish the story of the year.

Same themes, different words

Where would neologists be without the old favourites of politics and popular culture? In addition to the aforementioned, -gate continued to be as productive as ever in politics with Liborgate (the scandal surrounding some banks fixing their LIBOR rate) and pastygate (the scandal surrounding the discovery that UK Prime Minister David Cameron falsely claimed to have eaten a pasty). Another old word, pleb, became unexpectedly ubiquitous and honourable mentions must go to devo-max (an alternative to full independence whereby Scotland could get increased fiscal autonomy) and Grexit (from Greek and exit, the hypothetical scenario whereby Greece leaves the Eurozone and readopts their previous currency, the drachma).

It was hard to ignore the publishing phenomenon that was Fifty Shades of Grey, not least because it created a whole new genre: mummy porn, erotica written for or read by women. The term itself is somewhat disparaging, but has its linguistic predecessors in terms like chick lit, twit lit (novels written on Twitter), and others. We also saw the evidence of the term e-rotica, a rather apt nod to the fact that the phenomenon was fuelled by a surge of sales on e-readers.

Multitasking made easy?

No discussion of candidates for Word of the Year would be complete without considering how technology informs our language. We saw the emergence of second screening, the activity of watching television whilst simultaneously using a smartphone, laptop, etc., often so as to be able to use a social media site to post about what was happening. This particular method of preserving and recording the moment for posterity seems to run slightly counter to another shortlisted word from the world of social media: YOLO (you only live once).

US Word of the Year

GIF verb to create a GIF file of (an image or video sequence, especially relating to an event): he GIFed the highlights of the debate.

The GIF, a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, turned 25 this year, but like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier. GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun. The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.

Highlights of the year in GIFing

January 2012
The New York Public Library launches the stereogranimator, a tool enabling users to make GIFs of vintage stereographs in the library’s collection to create an illusion of the 3D experience of viewing through a stereoscope.

February 7, 2012
First post on the GIFtastic tumblr whatshouldwecallme

June 15, 2012
25th anniversary of the GIF

July 2012
20th anniversary of first GIF (and first photograph) ever posted to the World Wide Web

July 2012
GIFs contribute to the viral ubiquity of Gangnam Style.

August 2012
The GIF vaults to prominence as a tool in covering Olympic events, marshaled into use both for serious analysis and humorous effect. Blogging for the New York Times, Jenna Wortham called GIFs “the perfect medium for the Olympics.”

October 2012
Tumblr and the Guardian team up to live-GIF the presidential debates.

Origin, pronunciation, and spelling

GIF is an acronym from graphic interchange format, coined as a noun in 1987. The recent development of verbal GIF is an example of a linguistic process called conversion, or zero-formation. Verbs are often created from nouns in this way in English, ranging from venerable words such as to blanket and to forkto other recent technology neologisms like to Google and to Photoshop.

GIF may be pronounced with either a soft g (as in giant) or a hard g (as in graphic). The programmers who developed the format preferred a pronunciation with a soft g (in homage to the commercial tagline of the peanut butter brand Jif, they supposedly quipped “choosy developers choose GIF”). However, the pronunciation with a hard g is now very widespread and readily understood. Whichever pronunciation you use, it should of course be the same for both the noun and the verb.

GIF is usually spelled in all capitals in its uninflected form, but the addition of verbal endings presents problems. The examples of verbal GIF collected by Oxford’s lexicographers represent a dizzying variety of forms, including such infelicities as GIFfing and .giffed (with a period prefixed as in the file extension .gif). The most common form features GIF in capitals but the inflected endings in lowercase (GIFed, GIFing), so that is the spelling we have chosen to use here. However, there is also very strong evidence for an all-lowercase spelling with the f duplicated (giffed, giffing), perhaps by analogy with the verb riff.  With such a new word, it isn’t surprising that a single spelling hasn’t yet become established; Oxford’s lexicography team will be watching to see which version ultimately wins out.

Other words on our 2012 shortlist

GIF had strong competition this year from some other words that our team felt captured the zeitgeist of 2012:

  • Eurogeddon: the potential financial collapse of the European Union countries that have adopted the euro, envisaged as having catastrophic implications for the region’s economic stability [from euro + (Arma)geddon]
  • Higgs boson: a subatomic particle whose existence is predicted by the theory that unified the weak and electromagnetic interactions
  • MOOC: massive open online course; a university course offered free of charge via the Internet
  • nomophobia: anxiety caused by being without one’s mobile phone [from no + mo(bile) + phobia]
  • Super PAC: a type of independent political action committee which may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates
  • superstorm: an unusually large and destructive storm
  • YOLO: you only live once; typically used as rationale or endorsement for impulsive or irresponsible behavior

powered by oxford