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  • The word of the year for 2008 is Obama

    That's right, the word of the year for 2008 is Obama. It's a proper noun referring to the 44th president of the United States.


    Obama as the word of the year

    Between the credit crunch and the financial collapse, it looked for a while like the English language couldn't afford a word of the year this year.

    But that was before English got a last-minute bailout in the form of Barack Obama and his Camelot Frères financial dream time. According to a pseudo-scientific calculation made by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, when Obama speaks, stocks go up, but when George Bush praises free-market capitalism, they tank.

    Which is why Isaac's Wall Street blog picked recession as 2008 word of the year. Of course, the Bush team refuses to recognize the current recession, but then they also refused to recognize civil war in Iraq and rewrote the definition of torture.

    phoney as a 3 dollar bill 

    Phoney as a 3-dollar bill? Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke assured Americans that the government would print enough money to reverse the recession that we're not really in. 

    Even so, in the word of the year election, not everyone voted for Obama. But that doesn't mean they chose McCain/Palin, Ralph Nader, or Ron Paul, this year's versions of the Bush three dollar bill.

    For its word of the year, the Oxford American Dictionary picked hypermiling, 'to attempt to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one's car and one's driving techniques.' Cute, and certainly green, but like locavore, Oxford's pick last year, hypermiling is a bit too arcane – not to mention the fact that some favorite hypermiler stunts, like shutting off the engine while negotiating an Interstate off-ramp, are pretty dangerous, and others, like rolling through stop signs, are actually illegal. Plus the precipitous fall in gas prices in the fourth quarter suggests that the hypermiling fad may have already stalled out.

    Webster's New World Dictionary has named five finalists in its own 2008 word of the year competition: cyberchondriac, 'a hypochondriac whose symptoms come from WebMD'; leisure sickness, 'a syndrome of workaholics who get sick during weekends and vacations'; overshare, 'to supply too much information'; selective ignorance, 'the practice of ignoring unnecessary or irrelevant digital information'; and youthanasia, 'addiction to anti-wrinkle creams and other age-defying practices.' While all of these concepts are here to stay, none of the words that refer to them are likely to survive beyond 2008.

    William Safire, the New York Times "On-language" columnist, chose frugalista, a word from Oxford's list of finalists, as his WOTY: "a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc." Other finalists on that list are hockey mom, 'pit bull without the lipstick'; toxic debt, 'a worthless subprime mortgage buried inside a worthless derivative'; staycation, 'a vacation taken at home when gas prices are too high and you're buried under a heap of toxic debt'; and tweet, 'a Twitter message.'

    In another indication that the world has gone global lexically as well as economically, other countries are also busy choosing words of the year.

    Germany has picked a word of the year since 1971. Last year's winner was Klimakatastrophe, "a term arising out of the growing concern over climate change in Germany and the world."

    Despite the fact that it is a borrowed word, and one unfamiliar to most Russian speakers, the Center for the Development of the Russian Language chose glamour as its first word of the year, a kind of literature in which "the upside of the life of the Russian celebrities and the Nouveau Rich is described."

    Taiwan also began a search for a word of the year.  The United Daily News offered its readers 48 characters to choose from, "in the hope that one Chinese character could summarize the situation of Taiwan in 2008 or reflect Taiwan's people's feelings about the year." Readers submitting their vote have a chance to win a car, so there's a good chance that Taiwan's word of the year won't be China though it could easily be the word for 'car.'

    Every December in Japan, a priest at the Kiyomitzudera Buddhist temple in Kyoto brushes the kanji with the annual word of the year onto a large piece of cardboard. Fake was the Japanese word of the year for 2007, reflecting concern over widespread food contamination, intentional mislabeling, and other food fakery in Japan last year. Given the popularity of the new American president in Japan, it's possible that Japan will pick Obama as its word of the year this year.

    Obama, Japan 

    Obama has already become productive in English, producing spinoffs like Obama-mania, or the clipped form, Obamania, which is either positive or negative. There's also Obamarama. The president's supporters shouted "Gobama" during the campaign, and his opponents responded with "Nobama," which actually makes the president sound Japanese.

    Urban Dictionary – not the most reliable lexicon of new English – lists over 150 Obama variants, including Obama girl, Obama mama, Obama-nation, Obamalot, and Obamanomics. Most of these Obama offshoots will disappear quickly, but while many new words are here today, gone tomorrow, it looks like Obama will be around for at least four more years.


    Webster's New World Dictionary has just selected overshare as its word of the year for 2008. Given the already-entrenched TMI, 'too much information,' I'm guessing that overshare will prove superfluous.

    Japan has selected arafou, literally 'around forty,' as its word of the year. Apparently thirty-something has been big in Japan, but now the thirty-somethings have aged up, so forty-something is the new thirty-something. The runner-up WOTY is guu, meaning 'good.' Both these words are English borrowings, but that has done nothing to boost the American economy or restore the balance of trade.

    The U.S. is now in an official recession, so I may have been right in my initial assessment that English is in for some real belt-tightening, and while we all pitch in by exporting as many words as we can, hypermiling and taking staycations, 'stay-at-home vacations,' maybe we should also resign ourselves to the grim reality that we just can't afford a word of the year this year after all.

bulbulovo@gmail.com Nov 29, 2008 10:39 am

Just a small note: Rachel Maddow works for MSNBC, not CNN. And it's interesting you should mention her in the same post as Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache. Along with "Wort des Jahres", GdS also picks the "Unwort des Jahres" (non-word of the year). In one of this week's shows, Rachel Maddow declared "netroots" a non-word.

mjr.globalwriter@gmail.com Dec 7, 2008 10:30 am

On the Silk Road, they saw it coming. I handle the English language rapporteur job at the annual East-West Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan. This past April, after heavy debates on US-Russia relations, the dominance of China and what is happening in the former CIS states, the closing session topic was Glamour. Unlike most closing conference sessions, this one was fully attended, perhaps reflecting a heavy Russian presence at the conference and certainly reflecting their interest. The name Sarkozy was thrown around a lot.

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