The Chanukah candles have all burned out, the sun is setting earlier each day, and the weather is wreaking havoc with vacation plans. These signs of the waning year tell us that once again its time for the year-end word wrap. Just as reporters look back on the year's big stories, and photo editors pick the image that best captures the spirit of the year gone by, lexicographers see the winter solstice as the time to choose the Word of the Year, or the WOTY, as they like to acronymize it.
Dictionaries almost never make news, but announcing the word of the year tends to draw the attention of reporters, and news stories move product. So Webster’s New World Dictionary got a jump on WOTY season by announcing its word of the year choice, grass station, at the end of October. Critics immediately complained that there were still two whole months left in the year, plenty of time for something better to turn up. Plus grass stations, places to fill the tanks of biofuel-powered automobiles, don’t even exist yet – they’re still in the realm of science fiction. Nonetheless, the choice represents an improvement over last year’s winner, crackberry, ‘a person who uses a Blackberry or other hand-held phone/computer/pda obsessively.’
Not to be outdone in their haste to make headlines and promote greener vocabulary, in November the word watchers at the Oxford American Dictionary chose locavore as their word of the year, proving once again Dr. Johnson’s claim that lexicographers really are but harmless drudges.
A word coined in 2005 that no one has ever heard of, locavore was invented by a group of Californians to mean ‘a person who eats food grown locally.’ It’s a tree-hugging word: the eat-local movement, arguing that home-grown food is better and tastes better, hopes to save the world’s fossil fuel supply by shunning foods that have to be flown in from far away (last year Oxford picked as its WOTY carbon-neutral, another environmentally-friendly word). Eating local may work just fine in California, where fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, and wineries abound. But Oxford’s word of the year hasn’t got much traction here in central Illinois, where locavores are restricted to a diet of feed corn and soybeans.
The Locavore, a restaurant in Stirling, South Australia, serves nothing that comes from more than 100 miles away, except tourists.
When Oxford crowned locavore, browsers everywhere rushed to the Merriam-Webster website to look it up. The dictionary makers at Merriam-Webster, who at least have the sense to wait until the year’s almost over, pick their word of the year based on what their visitors click on, but despite the year-end flurry of interest in locavore, Merriam-Webster chose a word of the year they insist is even more popular, w00t, which is spelled with letters and numbers.
W00t, also written w007, woo7, and just plain woot, is actually a noise that people make when they’re excited, a whoop or holler meant to show excitement or appreciation. As Merriam-Webster defines it, w00t is an interjection “expressing joy (it could be after a triumph, or for no reason at all); similar in use to the word ‘yay.’”
To which my response is, “big whoopee.” No one really knows where w00t came from, and its spelling is far from standardized, but it is popular among gamers who use leet-speak (look it up), and people tend shout it at rock concerts or when they’re off their meds and riding alone on the bus.
Don’t feel bad if you never heard of w00t. Apparently, people who use it do so a lot, while the rest of us do what the lexicographers hope we’ll do when we encounter it, we look it up. However, if you look up w00t on mw.com, you’ll get this message: “The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary.” It’s odd that the Word of the Year isn’t even in the dictionary. Of course MW’s WOTY for last year, truthiness, hasn’t made it into their dictionary's database either.
This year’s choices confirm that dictionary-makers aren’t approaching the choice of word of the year with much high seriousness. Grass station, locavore, and w00t. None captures the spirit of 2007. None exemplifies the state of the English language. None comes to mind when anyone lists new and significant words.
Previous words of the year include blog, information superhighway, y2k, and metrosexual. As the American Dialect Society puts it, the word of the year “should be newly prominent or notable in the past year, and should have appeared frequently in the national discourse.” Of course, that’s the same group that picked plutoed as its word of the year for 2006. (In case you’re wondering, the ADS defines pluto, “to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto.”)
One gets the sense that these words are being chosen at dictionary office parties or three-martini conference luncheons, and while picking the word of the year often benefits from abandoning lexicographical drudgery along with the admonition to do no harm, it shouldn’t provoke the universal response, “Wut?”
Watch this space, though, because in the coming days I will announce my choice for the 2007 Word of the Year (my choice for the past two years, roadside bomb, is not eligible to win again, because of term limits).