Wednesday, November 25

Word Matters

Words of the Year
Just recently the folks at the Oxford University Press (OUP) announced that the word of the year for 2009 is (drum roll, please): “unfriend.” Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program, states that “[i]n the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year” (Oxford WOTY).

Another word bandied about this year is “admonish,” which was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2009. Roland Burris, the Blagojevich-appointed senator of Illinois, was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee (I’m sure there’s an oxymoron in there) for “providing “incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information to the public and the Senate.’” Representative Joe Wilson was admonished by the House leadership for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama. In fact, Peter A. Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, states that “[a]dmonish shot to the top of the list three days after Representative Joe Wilson's outburst during a speech made by President Obama, and it remained among our top lookups for weeks.” Sokolowski went on to say that “[w]hen the House announced plans to ‘admonish’ Representative Wilson, the word was understood to be technical or official, and it has been repeated often in coverage of recent contentious political issues. While this particular story wasn't very important in the context of a year's worth of news, it triggered enormous interest in this word.”

For the OUP folks, other words considered for word of the year (and in no particular order) included “hashtag,” “birther,” “intexticated,” “sexting,” “teabagger,” “brown state,” and “green state.” For the Merriam folks, alternative words included “emaciated,” “nugatory,” “pandemic,” “furlough,” and “philanderer.”

What interests me is that the OUP list of words includes a number of created words while the Merriam Webster folks seem to have settled for more commonplace words already in our vocabulary. This process of creating words seems to have increased over the past several years and, I think, technology helped lead the way.

I am old enough to remember when certain words were hyphenated and it took some time for them to become those hyphen-less compound words. I remember when currently non-hyphenated words were hyphenated; words such as “antismoking,” “coworker,” “interoffice,” and “nonemergency.” A bit of a digression to explain that pesky hyphen.

The digression
Fundamentally, the use of the hyphen has to do with rules of grammar and parts of speech. For example, you might say “This was a low-budget job.” That hyphenated word “low-budget” describes the kind of job it was, so we have taken two separate words and combined them to create an adjective describing the job.

“Anti” is a prefix used to modify a variety of words: smoking, abortion, union, etc. Its counterpart is “pro,” so folks might be anti-abortion or pro-abortion, or anti-union or pro-union, but in current writing, if you support the no-smoking legislation in some states, you are “antismoking” rather than “anti-smoking.” You will, no doubt, see an inconsistency because rules of hyphenation do not seem to be fixed by any one grammar guru. Instead, you see a gradual emergence and acceptance over time. For example, teachers, who may give in-class assignments, used to give “home-work” but now give “homework.”

Another good example of hyphenated words that become combined over time is email or, if you prefer, e-mail. Once upon time we began using this thing called “electronic mail” to differentiate it from the mail we received via the U.S. Postal Service. “Electronic mail” is a mouthful so folks started using “e-mail” and that hyphen reminded us it was a compound word as we joined the words “electronic” and “mail.” I long ago dropped the hyphen in favor of “email,” though I know that is not a universal usage. . . yet. More on hyphens and other such things in some other post.

Newly created words
What prompted this thinking about created words was not the words of the year, but some words I came across in my reading, specifically “advergaming,” “nocebo,” and “scientainment.”

Nocebo is defined as “the worsening of a patient’s healthy due to the expectation that a drug will cause adverse side effects,” so it’s a play on the placebo effect. It’s a horrifying concept of people being able to convince themselves of adverse side effects not actually caused by a medication simply because they believe they will experience such side effects. I can’t imagine the diagnostic complications caused by the nocebo effect.

We have scientainment thanks Richard Heene and the Balloon Boy story. In the aftermath of the balloon chase, we learned that the Heene family had been on Wife Swap not once, but twice (which seems to speak volumes about this group), and that because Heene seems to fancy himself some sort of a science guy, he was trying to pitch a new reality show that would combine science and entertainment.

And finally there is advergaming which is the use of video games to advertise something. Apparently the concept has been around since the 1980s when companies created games to promote their products. I remember CDs accompanying various products, but never thought too much about them as I simply threw away the CDs. But the term advergames has been around since 2001, coined by Wired! magazine because of the free online games available to advertise products. It’s quite an impressive approach to advertising and takes the concept of product placement to an entirely different level.

I remain intrigued by the development of new words. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems we have more such words created these days as a variety of worlds—technology, medicine, business, education—not just collide, but seem to coalesce in a variety of ways. Is that good for us in the long run? I’ll get back to you on that.