The word of the year for 2007 is English. Other word watchers picked grass station, locavore, and w00t as word of the year, and I myself considered several candidates, including Facebook, YouTube, and waterboarding. But in retrospect, 2007 seems to have produced a vocabulary list that, to quote former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, “I don’t remember.” In fact, so unmemorable were this year’s words that I finally had to admit that no other word captured the spirit of the times better than English itself.
Stephen Colbert names English “the wØrd” in a segment of his Colbert Report satirizing the official English movement. But he can’t name it the word of the year because of the TV writers’ strike.
English was at the core of many of 2007’s big stories. One news item about English that made a splash was Judge Laurence Silberman’s interpretation of the Second Amendment’s English. The chief judge of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia declared open season on D.C.’s gun control law, throwing out the city’s firearms statute because in his view, the Second Amendment really means, "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."
The Second Amendment states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Judge Silberman read the amendment’s first phrase, “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” as an unimportant preface, just a bit of constitutional throat clearing separated by a trigger-like comma from the only part we need to pay attention to, the amendment’s main clause, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
On the other hand, stricter constructionists than Judge Silberman prefer to honor the principle that every word in the Constitution is important, reminding us that in deciding Marbury v. Madison in 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “It cannot be presumed that any clause in the constitution is intended to be without effect.” The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Washington, D.C.’s, appeal to reinstate its gun law, and although the high court will look at many aspects of the Heller case, it will certainly have to weigh the English of the Second Amendment in coming to its decision.
But while gun control in the U.S. may be hanging on a comma, the most prominent example of English in the news this year was the push to make English the official language of the United States, with some observers wondering whether that would be a vote for English or against Mexico.
At the same time, the United Kingdom announced that immigrants to England who were not from the European Union would have to demonstrate their knowledge of English before entering the country, a move that most agreed was a vote not for English but against India and Pakistan. And the European Union itself considered naming English the most official of its 23 official languages, with some delegates wondering whether that would be a vote for English or against the French?
Official English was a hot button issue at the local level as well. More than 50 towns and cities, from Pahrump, Nevada to Bogota, New Jersey, considered making English official, a move frequently tied to laws forbidding landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, or refusing to let their children play in city parks.
In the past few years, English also became the official language of the Salvation Army, R.D.’s Drive-In, and Geno’s Steaks, and last year it even became the official language of one Kansas elementary school. In fact, so many locales, businesses, and schools made English official in 2007 that Michelin will soon offers guide book for those who want to travel the U.S. without hearing a word in any other language.
Advocates for official English from the White House to the schoolhouse argue that Americans need to be protected from the corrupting influence of foreign words, plus they hope that English-only laws will put an end to annoying multilingual package labels. On the other hand, First Amendment watchers wonder whether making English the official language of a county, a business, or a school constitutes discrimination on the basis of national origin, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
Joey Vento, owner of Geno’s Steaks, had to defend, not his use of Cheez-Whiz on his best-selling Philly cheese steak, but his English-only sign, before the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission.
While some Americans plumped for official English because they feared that immigrants were refusing to learn it, the Pew Hispanic Trust reported that Americans worried about having to listen to foreign words can relax, since nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States actually speak English very well.
And while the English-only crowd continues to insist that speaking English is the only way for anyone to get rich, find happiness, and enter the kingdom of heaven, they have also had to admit over the past year that speaking English can also get you killed, especially if you’re an Iraqi translator working for the American military. Of course if your goal is to enter the kingdom of heaven and you live in Iraq permanently, instead of just occupying it, then your choices are either to work as a translator or strap on an improvised explosive device, or IED, another term that came within a comma’s breadth of being named the word of the year for 2007.
In Iraq, speaking English for the American military can get you killed faster than you can say IED.