Sunday, December 14, 2008

Words of the Year 2008

Any organi{s/z}ation with any tangential relation words seems to make Word of the Year pronouncements these days (or these years, at least). I believe there is a correlation between how early the pronouncements are made and whether the organi{s/z}ation is trying to sell you something. The American Dialect Society wait(s) until January (when they have their annual meeting). And that is as it should be--one needs some perspective on the year in order to evaluate its words. Oxford University Press and Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, are keen to get their press releases out in time to serve as subliminal reminders that dictionaries make great holiday gifts.

I have nothing to sell you, but I'm going to give you the SbaCL words of the year a little early this year--just to make sure that I get them out at all while a horrible deadline, not to mention a trip to the States and winter holidays and birthdays come (chiefly AmE) careening (=careering) toward(s) me. Words of the Year will be my airbag. (That metaphor is the evidence, if you need it, that my brain is not handling the pressure well.)

So, without further ado (wait, is that a drumroll I hear?), the SbaCL British-English- to-American-English Word of the Year is:

vet (verb, transitive)

meaning:
3. To examine carefully and critically for deficiencies or errors; spec. to investigate the suitability of (a person) for a post that requires loyalty and trustworthiness. (OED)

as in:
It raises the singular question of when and how well the Senator's campaign vetted the woman he named to be his running mate. (commenter on NewsTrust, 2 September 2008)
"Wait, wait!" you say. "How can you count that as BrE to AmE? It was right here in my AmE dictionary all along!" Oh, it was, but wasn't it interesting for those of us who live in the UK to see the big deal that was made of this word in the American blogosphere and press--like this article on Slate and this one by the Word Detective. In fact, it was number 2 on Merriam-Webster's top ten words of the year and has provoked a backlash from people who became tired of and even hate the word. Thus, it qualifies as a WotY in that it 'came into its own' in AmE this year.

The Slate article tells us that:
Through the early decades of the 20th century, vet was primarily a Britishism. It became fairly popular in the United Kingdom during the 1930s [...] Over the next couple of decades, it gained traction across the Atlantic. Time magazine appears to have used the word vetting for the first time in 1945 but only in the context of a quote from "The Anatomy of Courage," a newly published study on the psychological effects of war by the Briton Lord Moran: "A young subaltern with 'dark eyes under long lashes, a pink and white complexion' was sent to Moran for 'vetting.' " The word first appears out of quotes in that magazine in 1959 (in an article on picking a new symphony director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic), pops up once in the 1960s, and then several times in the 1980s.
But the word continues to be put in (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas of the "scare quote" variety (for instance here and here), indicating that the verb is still considered a bit "foreign". (I'm not claiming here that the writers knew that vet is BrE, just that they don't feel that the word is at-home in their dialect.)

So, congratulations vet! And president-elect Obama!

Onwards and overwards to the SbaCL American-English-to-British-English Word of the Year. It's:
meh

That was rather anticlimatic, wasn't it? Let me try to spruce it up.

Ta-da! It's meh!

Maybe I should stop trying so hard. Meh is an interjection expressing indifference. While there was some debate among readers as to whether it qualifies as AmE-to-BrE, since it's most at home in a cyberspace that doesn't respect dialectal isoglosses, there's a widespread perception that it was populari{s/z}ed by that very American institution, The Simpsons. It's not the kind of word that British grandmothers are going about using (or American grandmothers, for that matter), but it made a splash recently when the Collins dictionary people announced that it would be included in their next edition, and their PR people ensured that the newspapers took up the story. I've since noticed my students using it, particularly on Facebook--one suspects that all the press attention has spread meh's popularity--or at least has made me more sensitive to it.

So, hurrah for meh and meh to hurrah!

Thanks to all who took the time to nominate a word. (Unlike last year, I've actually selected a nominated word. I'm softening up to you people.) Happy Word of the Year, and happy holidays!

Monday, December 01, 2008

the dreaded lurgi

I have the lurgi. Better Half has the lurgi. Grover is recovering from the lurgi.

Lurgi, the lurgi or the dreaded lurgi (also sometimes spelt lurgy) rhymes with Fergie and is a lovely informal BrE word with comedic (and possibly dialectal) origins that can now refer to an annoying (but not serious) illness that hangs around and makes one feel miserable. World Wide Words does a lovely job of recounting its history. Wiktionary has more on its meanings. In addition to meaning 'flu-like symptoms' it has a playground use that is somewhat equivalent to AmE cooties, which you can learn more about here or in the following video:


But that's all from me now, 'cause I've got the lurgi.