Sunday, December 14, 2008

Words of the Year 2008

Any organi{s/z}ation with any tangential relation words seems to make Word of the Year pronouncements these days (or these years, at least). I believe there is a correlation between how early the pronouncements are made and whether the organi{s/z}ation is trying to sell you something. The American Dialect Society wait(s) until January (when they have their annual meeting). And that is as it should be--one needs some perspective on the year in order to evaluate its words. Oxford University Press and Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, are keen to get their press releases out in time to serve as subliminal reminders that dictionaries make great holiday gifts.

I have nothing to sell you, but I'm going to give you the SbaCL words of the year a little early this year--just to make sure that I get them out at all while a horrible deadline, not to mention a trip to the States and winter holidays and birthdays come (chiefly AmE) careening (=careering) toward(s) me. Words of the Year will be my airbag. (That metaphor is the evidence, if you need it, that my brain is not handling the pressure well.)

So, without further ado (wait, is that a drumroll I hear?), the SbaCL British-English- to-American-English Word of the Year is:

vet (verb, transitive)

meaning:
3. To examine carefully and critically for deficiencies or errors; spec. to investigate the suitability of (a person) for a post that requires loyalty and trustworthiness. (OED)

as in:
It raises the singular question of when and how well the Senator's campaign vetted the woman he named to be his running mate. (commenter on NewsTrust, 2 September 2008)
"Wait, wait!" you say. "How can you count that as BrE to AmE? It was right here in my AmE dictionary all along!" Oh, it was, but wasn't it interesting for those of us who live in the UK to see the big deal that was made of this word in the American blogosphere and press--like this article on Slate and this one by the Word Detective. In fact, it was number 2 on Merriam-Webster's top ten words of the year and has provoked a backlash from people who became tired of and even hate the word. Thus, it qualifies as a WotY in that it 'came into its own' in AmE this year.

The Slate article tells us that:
Through the early decades of the 20th century, vet was primarily a Britishism. It became fairly popular in the United Kingdom during the 1930s [...] Over the next couple of decades, it gained traction across the Atlantic. Time magazine appears to have used the word vetting for the first time in 1945 but only in the context of a quote from "The Anatomy of Courage," a newly published study on the psychological effects of war by the Briton Lord Moran: "A young subaltern with 'dark eyes under long lashes, a pink and white complexion' was sent to Moran for 'vetting.' " The word first appears out of quotes in that magazine in 1959 (in an article on picking a new symphony director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic), pops up once in the 1960s, and then several times in the 1980s.
But the word continues to be put in (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas of the "scare quote" variety (for instance here and here), indicating that the verb is still considered a bit "foreign". (I'm not claiming here that the writers knew that vet is BrE, just that they don't feel that the word is at-home in their dialect.)

So, congratulations vet! And president-elect Obama!

Onwards and overwards to the SbaCL American-English-to-British-English Word of the Year. It's:
meh

That was rather anticlimatic, wasn't it? Let me try to spruce it up.

Ta-da! It's meh!

Maybe I should stop trying so hard. Meh is an interjection expressing indifference. While there was some debate among readers as to whether it qualifies as AmE-to-BrE, since it's most at home in a cyberspace that doesn't respect dialectal isoglosses, there's a widespread perception that it was populari{s/z}ed by that very American institution, The Simpsons. It's not the kind of word that British grandmothers are going about using (or American grandmothers, for that matter), but it made a splash recently when the Collins dictionary people announced that it would be included in their next edition, and their PR people ensured that the newspapers took up the story. I've since noticed my students using it, particularly on Facebook--one suspects that all the press attention has spread meh's popularity--or at least has made me more sensitive to it.

So, hurrah for meh and meh to hurrah!

Thanks to all who took the time to nominate a word. (Unlike last year, I've actually selected a nominated word. I'm softening up to you people.) Happy Word of the Year, and happy holidays!

28 comments:

Bob Ed Heidbreder said...

What do you mean, "you people"? ;-)

Doug Sundseth said...

Had I nominated a word, I would assume that she meant "all us'n". Since I didn't, I suppose that leaves only "all y'all".

Ah, well. Perhaps next year.

lynneguist said...

You people who I feel guilty about disappointing (what ego!) when I'm spending my time on legitimate academic pursuits instead of this blog.

biochemist said...

I love your choice of the verb 'vet'! It is commonly used in the UK, as you say, with variations - 'positive vetting' and 'negative vetting' depending on whether one is looking for the supporting attributes or for the one factor that will eliminate the candidate....

But it's a two-way street, and I have noticed that the AmE usage of 'veteran' for a former soldier is now fairly common in the UK on TV and in newspapers, although I haven't heard anyone refer to them as vets - that would still be a veterinary surgeon (UK)/ veterinarian (US)

Ginger Yellow said...

Huh. I'd no idea that "vet" wasn't common in the US. What was used in the past? "Screen"?

Bob Ed Heidbreder said...

Mine was a joking reference to a scene from an American movie in which a white man *pretending* to be a black man, annoyed by a dismissive reference to himself and blacks as "you people," defensively asks the white speaker, "What do you mean, 'you people'?!"

A *genuine* black man, overhearing the exchange, in turn annoyedly asks the white man *pretending* to be a black man, "What do *you* mean, 'you people'?!"

Bob Ed Heidbreder said...

"I'd no idea ..."

That's the BrE equivalent of AmE

"I didn't have any idea ..."

right?

lynneguist said...

@BEH: see this post on contracted have, if you're interested.

mollymooly said...

I know it's a bit early, but I hope to be able to nominate "Ponzi scheme" for 2009 US-to-UK WotY. In most UK news organs, the current Bernard Madoff megascam is still being called a "pyramid scheme", which of course means a different thing entirely. Only idiots fall for pyramid schemes, whereas regular fools can fall for Ponzi schemes.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Well, I'm not a British grandmother yet, although I live in hope that it will happen soon, but I do both like and use the word "meh", it is incredibly expressive!

The compliments of the season (BrE for "Happy Holidays") to you, too!

terrycollmann said...

A veterinary surgeon friend of mine likes to ask: what would you rather be, vetted or doctored?

Canadian said...

I have never heard anyone say "meh", though I have seen it online often. How is it pronounced? (No, I never watched the Simpsons...)

bill said...

canadian:
on how to say "Meh"

Shrug your shoulders as if you ar indicating you don't care either way about something, and grunt something starting with an "M"
That is how to pronounce it...seriously.

But on a more formal note...say Memory and leave off the "mory"

Cameron said...

Mrs. Redboots, the BrE for "happy holidays" is "Merry Christmas" isn't it??

I've always found it slightly odd that in a higly religious society like the US a euphemism (not quite the right word, but you understand what I mean) is preferred (not universally but very widely, even in the bible belt) while in the secularised UK we happily go about merrychristmassing all over the place; even a rampant Atheist like me. I suppose it's because we have less religious sensibility about it.

mollymooly said...

happy holidays has been covered already.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@Cameron: As millymooly has said, "Happy Holidays" has been extensively covered already; I hadn't realised it was in such widespread use, and tend to equate it with "Seasons' Greetings" (in cards) and "Compliments of the Season" (spoken) - which latter I would wish to a Jewish or Muslim friend; someone who is of no particular religion is probably going to celebrate Christmas anyway!

Anonymous said...

As a noun, "vet" is used as a short form for not only "veteran" but also "veterinarian" -- this was exploited by Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) to great advantage here, for example.

Anonymous said...

Another Canadian checking in. I'd never heard of 'meh' either (that's eether, not eyether!) as I was born in the US!

We are hybrids and used to confused usage, but 'vet' has been around for so very long that it seems the Brits should come up with something better to send across!

Vet as short for veteran has caused confusion with a British net pal of mine. I'm relieved to see that it's being refreshingly used 'over there'... 'across the pond' as we are want to say!

biochemist said...

The point is that in the UK, one hears 'veteran' for old soldier nowadays - but NOT 'vet' in this context. As a noun it only refers to the animal doctor in the UK.

Robbie said...

I thought "meh" was a loan-word from Yiddish. (Can't find my copy of Leo Rosten's wonderful The Joys of Yiddish to check.)

Stephen P said...

I've always been surprised that the pronunciation of 'meh' involves a final short 'e' sound, which I remember being described as not occurring in any English words. Can anyone think of any other counterexamples? (Sorry if this has been discussed when 'meh' has come up previously.)

mollymooly said...

@Stephen P:
Interjections often have sounds not occurring in other word classes, and often represented by unusual spellings: tsk-tsk, ugh, pshaw, phew, etc. For me, the vowel of "yeah" doesn't occur in any other word. But it's also true that the conventionalised spellings can in turn engender spelling pronunciations of the relevant word -- sometime jocose, sometimes not.

Some (anglicized) Irish placenames have the so-called "checked" vowels in syllable-final position, where the following syllable begins with a H-sound: Drogheda and Aghada have the LOT and TRAP vowels, though if you can't manage that you can use the THOUGHT and PALM vowels and drop the following H. Similarly I've heard Irish people say "vehement" and "vehicle" with the DRESS vowel + H rather than the FLEECE vowel. And pronouncing the emphatic form of "the" to rhyme with "meh" rather than as "thee".

Stephen said...

In the veterinary world (at least in the UK) the verb 'to vet' has quite a specific meaning, referring to a pre-purchase examination of a horse. I have no idea whether the current use of the word stems from this or vice-versa.
Whichever it was I can tell you that a full five-stage vetting of a horse is an incredibly dull event and the word itself is much more interesting!

Neil Dolinger said...

I know you already laid out your WOTYs (WsOTY?), but I wondered how many AmE speakers have heard "ginger" being used to describe red hair. I had assumed this was strictly BrE, but my daughter claims she has heard a number of her high school classmates use it thus.

Cameron said...

Ah but Neil, have they heard it used to describe pop/soda as we do here in Scotland (or Glasgow at least)? "A bottle of ginger" isn't as common as it once was, I think, but still a usage I'm fond of.

Aviatrix said...

In Canada I'm quite familiar with the prepurchase meaning of vet, but I still think of it as a metaphor. If I get a used car vetted, I smile inside at the image of the mechanic checking the ridges on its teeth and watching its gait. I'd use it more for machinery than people.

I understand vet meaning veteran, and I'm sure some Canadians use it, but I don't. It seems disrespectful. I'm actually more likely to say "war veteran" or "veteran of the war in Afghanistan" because veteran itself is used so commonly for people with long experience in other things, ranging from hockey to political office.

Expat mum said...

I wish the word "vet" would come back as described. I used to make weak jokes about Vetting party guest lists to see if I wanted to go somewhere (not that I really did that), which were met with blank looks from Americans.
Even today, "vet" is more likely to mean an ex-military person than an animal doctor as it is in the UK. I'll never get it right.

John Cowan said...

Historically, at least, there was also a distinction in the word "veteran" itself: in BrE it meant an old soldier, retired or not (the meaning of Latin veteranus); in AmE it meant and means any former member of the military, old or not.

OED2 lists both meanings, but gives only AmE citations for the second.