Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Words of the Year 2006

Ta-da! Here are the results of the first annual SbaCL Words of the Year Awards, celebrating the words that demonstrated a lessening of the separation of our common language in 2006. I thank readers of this blog for their nominations. My selections from among those nominations have been based upon the timeliness of the nomination (in other words, if the word enjoyed a particular surge in popularity this year) and the success of the word in the relevant dialect--i.e., whether people are actually using the word.

The first category is Most Useful Import from American English to British English. This is a difficult category because of the regularity with which words travel from AmE to BrE these days. Nominations included Size 00, through when used to describe an inclusive range (e.g. the numbers 1 through 5), and cookie. Only the first of these meets the timeliness criterion, but I think it must be disqualified on two counts. First, its lack of nativi{s/z}ation in BrE is evident from the fact that no one seems to be able to agree how to pronounce it. Second, it remains a name for an American thing. American size 00 is equivalent to British size 2. The term size 00 was in the news a lot, but it is regularly noted as an American phenomenon.

So, the winner of best AmE import to BrE is...


muffin topthe roll of fat that bulges over the waistband of (BrE) trousers/(AmE) pants that are too tight and too low
Muffin top is found almost as often in the UK news as size 00 this year, but when it is used, it's usually to refer to British muffin tops--thus clearly filling a gap in the BrE lexicon. Here we must take issue with Hadley Freeman at the Guardian who incorrectly (a) confuses a muffin top with a double hip (a phenomenon that is not dependent on tight jeans) and (b) claims that muffin top is a British coining. As I've pointed out here before, the term depends on an understanding of American muffins that few BrE speakers have--since it's rare to see an "American-style muffin" in the UK that has an actual muffin top, as illustrated at the right here. And it's been popular in AmE slang for several years now, while it's still used somewhat tentatively in BrE. The majority of my 19-year-old students did not know the term at the start of the Autumn (AmE prefers Fall) term this year, but few Americans who have recently survived high school would have missed the term.

On to our next category: Most Useful Import from British English to American English. Here there is a clear winner, with no other nominations meeting the timeliness criterion. And the WotY goes to:

wanker (and its derivatives)
a detestable person, a loser, a self-aggrandi{s/z}ing person
The meaning of wanker is difficult to make precise, but it derives from the BrE verb to wank, i.e. to masturbate. Wanker has been sneaking into American popular culture under the radar for some years (e.g. Peggy Bundy's maiden name on television's Married with Children [1987] was Wanker, which was certainly meant as a joke that could make it past the censors' noses--though it would have more trouble doing so on British television). But it came into its own in AmE this year, especially, it seems, in political blogging, where many variants on the term are found, including: wankiest (in American Prospect), wankerism (quoted on Firedoglake), wank-fest (in a letter to Salon.com), wankery (on Brendan Calling from the Underground). Though some of these don't include the -er suffix, I'm treating this as backformation from wanker rather than derivation from wank because of my hunch that wanker was the vanguard word in the move from BrE to AmE. In other words, the British had the word wank and made wanker out of it, wanker travel(l)ed to America, then lost its -er. Notice that all of the above words are derogatory, but there is at least one positive member of the wank(er) family: wankalicious. According to the Urban Dictionary (never the most reliable source), this describes something "so good it compares with masturbation". My understanding of the term, however, is that it's something so good that it inspires masturbation. This one definitely derives from wank without involving wanker.

Finally, our last category of the evening, Best Word Coined by a Reader of this Blog. And the WotY goes to:
Googleschaden
"the way in which pundits' past pontifications can now come back to haunt them"

Regular reader/commenter Paul Danon created the word, after Andrew Sullivan created the definition (and an ill-fitting word) on his blog, which was forwarded to this blog by M.A.Peel during the nomination stage. Sullivan then noted Paul's word on his blog, leading more than 9500 of his readers to this blog (and the entry in which Paul coined the term) in two days. While I'm sure many of you have created new words this year, and we even witnessed monetary exchange for a new word on this blog, Googleschaden was definitely the one that got the most attention this year. Tip for next year's WotY contest: make sure your word has a good PR machine behind it.

Thanks again to everyone who's played a role in making the first SbaCL WotY happen!

23 comments:

Ginger Yellow said...

I reckon "jerk" is the closest one word synonym for "wanker". It's not identical and doesn't catch all the semantic nuances, but it's pretty close.

Ben Zimmer said...

Connotatively speaking, I think "jerk-off" gets you a bit closer than "jerk".

Rick Sprague said...

I agree with Ben Zimmer. I'd go so far as to say that "jerk" has lost any sexual innuendo, in my experience. To me, it merely denotes a rude person, and little kids may say it without reprimand.

American traditional (i.e. non-political) skinheads often call each other "wanker" affectionately/ironically, either as a way of asserting their shared connection to the subculture's British origins or to chide someone for acting "too British". I have recently noticed, though, that the intoned emphasis marking this as an ironic use is weakening, which leads me to think that it's being adopted as an ordinary word.

Daisy said...

"Wanker" is a fantastic word, though I've never worked it into my vocabulary because I think it'd sound a bit pretentious with my hillbilly accent.

"Jagoff" is an AmE equivalent, maybe regional, though. I've mainly heard it in the Pittsburgh area.

uwes98 said...

I recall 7-8 years ago we in a California bar and my friend was walking the fine line trying to mouth-off to someone without starting a fight -- so he called the guy a wanker. The other guy apparently didn't know what it meant, or at least didn't take offense.

What's the BrE alternative to 'through?'

lynneguist said...

According to the nominator, there is no BrE equivalent for through in that context.

Anonymous said...

British replacement for "Friday through Tuesday" would probably [US likely as an adverb] be "Friday to Tuesday inclusive". You could probably say "Friday through to Tuesday" and be both understood and not accused of Yankophilia. Too many Brits will still say "Friday to Tuesday" and risk misubderstandings.

lynneguist said...

Ben Zimmer analyses googleschaden in depth over on Language Log.

Rebecca said...

Did you see the banished word list?

http://www.lssu.edu/banished/current.php

Ginger Yellow said...

I think the vast majority of Brits would understand "Friday to Tuesday" or "1 to 10" as inclusive. Put it this way, if you wanted to be exclusive, you'd have to word it differently.

ally said...

I agree, ginger yellow. Can't imagine anyone ever thinking, eg, 'secondary schools are for pupils aged 11 to 16' meant that the youngest pupil was 12 and the eldest 15, or 'Because of the bank holiday I'm working Tuesday to Friday this week' as meaning the speaker was going to work only 2 days.

As for wanker, it sounds like the US hasn't quite got the hang of how insulting it is. Whereas you might call someone a bastard/ git/ etc in jest, calling someone a wanker really implies they are/ have done something completely contemptible. (I'm sure i've typed a comment in which i said almost exactly the same thing on this blog before, by the way.)

lynneguist said...

Whoops, the above link to Language Log links to a different website (which was also discussing SbaCL that day, and I got into a flattered confusion!).

The Language Log post is HERE!

rimone said...

dunno about word of the year, but riffing off 'wanker', my fave new word is 'yankstain' (e.g., bu$hCo follower). and yes, i'm American but blissfully living in England.

nb: i got sick and tired of 'wanker' after Atrios used it to death last year and most others followed, which all helped me to quit posting on politics and concentrate on the fun things in life.

Steve Jooler said...

How ironic is it that people are trying to delete the word of the year from Wikipedia. C'est la vie!

Rebecca said...

Yet another link: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6240055.stm

lynneguist said...

The BBC article is about the American Dialect society Word of the Year (plutoed). The URL above is cut off, so click here to get to it.

the_sybil said...

What is a "double hip"? Does it refer to what I would call saddlebags (lumps of flesh on the outside of the thighs) and if so is this another AmE/BrE thing, or am I just ignorant of this phrase?

With regard to BrE equivalents of "through" I have heard "Friday while Thursday" used, but pretty specifically regional to the Sheffield area. Not sure if it implies inclusivity or not.

lynneguist said...

I don't know the phrase double hip as a standard phrase, but I understood it immediately upon reading it. It's when you've got a silhouette like this:

[tummy]
( ) [above hip joint]
( ) [below hip joint]
| | [legs]

between the hip and thigh because fat sticks out on the hip, then not at the actual joint, then again at the start of the thigh. I think of saddlebags as referring to the lower set of parentheses/brackets, rather than the whole set up. The problem in wearing clingy clothes is not so much that one is round, but that there's this divot at the joint that completely ruins the line of the clothes (and the body).

Not at all the same as a muffin top, since one has a 'double hip' even when undressed--whereas the muffin top is pushed into being by the clothes.

Don't ask me how I know this, please.

lynneguist said...

Newsflash:

The Macquarie Dictionary (Australia) had its first WotY vote this year, and have declared muffin top its colloquialism of the year. They claim that the word has its origins in the Australian sitcom Kath and Kim. Hm, so I've claimed it for the Americans, Hadley Freeman in the Guardian has claimed it for the British, and now Macquarie is claiming it for the Australians. Does anyone have any evidence of the term being used before the 2005 Kath and Kim citation?

Anonymous said...

No...

lynneguist said...

Correcting my previous comment--the Kath and Kim episode featuring muffin top is not from 2005. I'm having trouble finding out when it's from. (Anyone know the name of the episode?) The first AmE citation located so far is from 2003.

azurelunatic said...

I have observed another use of "wank" with loose connections to its origin. Say "She is a wanker" in certain online circles, and the image evoked will be malicious gossip and messy emotional drama. Compare "It's a circle-jerk".

Steph Lewis said...

Jumping on the band wagon very late I just had to reply to this one! "She is a wanker" is not something you would hear even as an insult really in the UK. Wanker is not exclusively a male insult but it sounds weird to call a girl a wanker...more likely to be a cow or a bitch!

It's weird because the verb "to rank" has a different meaning from calling someone a wanker. A wanker is a dick, a giant nob-end, a loser (definitely more AmE) & more insulting than the AmE jerk I think...

Although I haven't heard it used in ages so must be out if vogue...