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  • WTF is the 2010 Word of the Year

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    WTF is the 2010 Word of the Year.

    Each December the Web of Language chooses one word or phrase which best exemplifies the spirit of the year gone by. It may be a new word, like "refudiate," chosen as word of the year this year by the Oxford American Dictionary, or an old one, like "austerity," Merriam-Webster's choice. It could be a word that lasts: "blog" and "information superhighway" were words of the year. But it could be an obscure word as well: "locavore," for example, which few people had a taste for, or worse yet, "plutoed," a word with the visibility of a very dim comet (neither word was Web of Language approved). Then there was "roadside bomb." That morbid phrase appeared in so many daily headlines about the War in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 that it was the Web of Language word of the year two years running.

    WTF, this year’s word of the year, rolls up into a single acronym the popular reaction to the most salient events of the year gone by. It's the perfect response to just about anything. Exit polls taken during the mid-term elections in November showed that, regardless of age, gender, economic status, sexual preference, or party affiliation, the most common voter reaction before, during, and after the election was, “WTF?” The word had an even greater following among nonvoters, who frequently used WTF as their excuse for staying away from the polls.

    It’s not just voting that evoked WTF in 2010. The Recession, which was declared to be over (on Wall Street, that is; continuing unemployment on Main Street apparently has little to do with the official economic recovery), produced its share of WTF moments. Think back, too, to the BP oil spill, which devastated the Gulf but produced anger at suggestions that offshore drilling be halted until we could figure out how to do it right. WTF? There’s the growth of the know-nothing Tea Party, which wants the government out of every aspect of our lives so long as everyone speaks English and abortions are outlawed; the comments of Sarah Palin (pls refudiate), Christine O’Donnell (she’s so not a witch), and Haley Barbour (Martin Luther King wa’n’t much of a public speaker; segregation in Mis’sippi wa’n’t so bad); the elusive peace in Iraq (Operation Desert Quagmire), the continuing war in Afghanistan (Operation Desert Quagmire 2); the common belief that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that global warming is a myth, and that the earth is flat; not to mention the death of English, announced with little fanfare by the Washington Post—all of these provoke the inevitable response, WTF?

    2010 also saw WikiLeaks dumping screen after screen of military and diplomatic secrets on the internet, to which we all said, WTF? And after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested in England to answer a sex charge against him in Sweden, someone leaked the confidential Swedish police report detailing the complainants’ charges (warning: contains mature themes and sexually explicit language) on the internet, confirming irony as the organizing principle of the universe together with thing no. 8 of Google’s ten things, “The need for information crosses all borders.” To wit: WTF?

    And speaking of what leaks should be leaked and what leaks shouldn’t, 2010 saw Google finally pull the plug on its Chinese start-up, Google.cn, not so much because “the need for information crosses all borders”—the company had already agreed to block access to the websites on China’s no-surf list—but because the Chinese were hacking into Google’s servers looking for information. A WikiLeaked cable reported that China’s chief internet censor googled himself, didn’t like what he found, shouted the Chinese equivalent of WTF, and launched a cyberattack on the company.

    screen shot of Google.cn

    Screenshot of the Google.cn homepage launched in 2008. No longer feeling lucky in Beijing, Google moved its servers to Hong Kong, which though part of China still has a more flexible attitude toward internet access.

    WTF is hardly a new term. It’s been around since 1985, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as an interjection “used to express incredulity or annoyance.”

    OED definition of WTF: (especially in the language of electronic communications) 'what the fuck?'; used to express incredulity or annoyance.

    While WTF may have its origins in written chat and text, where it doesn’t need a question mark, it has made its way into conversation big time, pronounced with the rising intonation characteristic of a question, as in this 2009 cite transcribed from CNN: “WTF. Yes. I said it and I’m not retracting” (Corpus of Contemporary American English).

    WikiLeaks is all about leaking secret information, a practice that is probably as old as information itself. In Gaudy Night (1935), Dorothy Sayers’ detective Lord Peter Wimsey is sent to Rome, “like a plumber, to stop diplomatic leaks.” The metaphor returns in 1973 with Richard Nixon’s White House plumbers, for whom stopping leaks, planting disinformation, and breaking and entering were all part of the job. Too bad WTF wasn’t around back then, or it would have been one more “expletive deleted” on the White House tapes.

    Washington Post reporting on Nixon plumbers

    Evans and Novak writing about Nixon’s White House plumbers. Washington Post, Nov. 22, 1973.

    And finally, one sure sign that WTF is word-of-the-year worthy: the CIA’s probe into the damage done by the WikiLeaks leaks is formally called the WikiLeaks Task Force, but given the government’s love of three-letter acronyms, the agency’s code word for the operation is WTF.

    CIA seal at CIA headquarters

    OMG, what does it tell us about our intelligence services when the CIA calls a major task force WTF? 


charlesdromero@gmail.com Dec 27, 2010 10:54 am
Not to mention that the spoken "WTF" usually results in a never-ending cycle of the same out of shock that an acronym with two additional syllables is being used to replace an otherwise concise, easily understood expression.
dougedmunds@gmail.com Feb 10, 2011 3:46 pm
WTF didn't win? WTF! Maybe this year.

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