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Let's Double Down On A Superstorm Of Malarkey: Picking 2012's Word Of The Year

Selfie, one of the candidates for 2012's Word of the Year, means a self-portrait photograph, usually posted to a social networking site. (textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/Original image by Diana Walker for Time)

There is a major decision coming up that will truly define the year 2012. Yes, it's almost time for the American Dialect Society to once again vote on the Word of the Year. Will it be selfie? Hate-watching? Superstorm? Double down? Fiscal cliff? Or (shudder) YOLO?

Ben Zimmer is a language columnist for The Boston Globe and chairman of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee. He tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the Word of the Year can be either a word or a phrase, as long as it's achieved new prominence in 2012. "You might have heard about YOLO, the acronym for 'you only live once.' YOLO caught on this year as a bit of youth slang that young people are already a little sick of."

A selfie is a self-portrait photograph, usually posted to a social networking site — and used most memorably by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (or, let's be honest, one of her aides) in a humorous message to the Texts from Hillary Tumblr account. "Another word that I was introduced to this year which I quite like, hate-watching, which describes the masochistic act of continuing to watch a TV show even if you hate it."

And, of course, there were the old-fashioned words that resurfaced this year, like malarkey, popularized by Vice President Joe Biden in a debate with Paul Ryan. "That's a great Irish-American word that's been around for about a century ... it's such a great evocative word, and it grabbed people's interest," Zimmer says. "It turns out it was Irish-American newspaper writers who popularized it in the early 20th century."

Some words captured public attention for sadder reasons, like superstorm, coined to describe Hurricane Sandy. "Someone from the National Weather Service actually suggested frankenstorm, because it was a hybrid of different weather systems, like Frankenstein's monster, and it was also going to hit around Halloween," Zimmer says. But many news organizations considered Frankenstorm too lighthearted in the wake of the disaster, so the consensus settled on superstorm.

Last year, the concepts of the 1 percent and the 99 percent were on everyone's mind — giving rise, in a way, to this year's prominent percentage: 47. "If you think about the impact of last year's Occupy movement, the idea of breaking the population into percentages based on some sort of economic factor was powerful," Zimmer says. When Mitt Romney was caught on tape decrying 47 percent of the American electorate as "dependent on government," he adds, that became "a real touchstone of the election."

Gambling metaphors were also big this year, particularly doubling down, a high-risk, high-reward play in blackjack, which can be used in either positive or negative ways — such as when former President Bill Clinton described Romney as someone who will "double down on trickle-down" economics.

There's no clear front-runner among all these choices, Zimmer says. "Last year, I think it was pretty obvious going in that Occupy was the prohibitive favorite. Certainly, the term fiscal cliff has been used a lot in the last few months, and that could end up being the winner, in the same way that, for instance, bailout was the winner for the American Dialect Society four years ago. It could be coming from pop culture, or the tech world — there's a lot of possible choices this year."

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There is a major decision coming up that will truly define 2012. It's almost time for the American Dialect Society to once again vote on the word of the year. With a look at some of the choices, we're joined by the chair of the society's New Words Committee, Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer.

Glad to have you back.

BEN ZIMMER: Glad to be here.

MONTAGNE: So tell us what the criteria are for the word of the year.

ZIMMER: Well, when the American Dialect Society gathers to vote for a word of the year, first of all, it can be any vocabulary item. That could be individual words or phrases. And we're looking for what's been newly prominent or notable in the past year. So we could look at some words that are very new. This year, you might have heard about YOLO, the acronym for you only live once. YOLO caught on this year as a bit of youth slang that young people are already a little sick of. Or a word like selfie, to describe a self-portrait photograph taken on Facebook, or another word that I was introduced to this year, which I quite like, hate-watching, which describes the masochistic act of continuing to watch a TV show, even if you hate it.

MONTAGNE: Old words, even old-fashioned words. You had Vice President Joe Biden making newly popular - at least for a moment - the word malarkey.

ZIMMER: Yeah. That's a great Irish-American word that's been around for about a century. But he used it a couple of times in the vice presidential debate, talking about Paul Ryan's rhetoric as a bunch of malarkey. And it's such a great, evocative word. And it turns out it was Irish-American newspaper writers who popularized it in the early 20th century.

MONTAGNE: So some words that appeared were very short-lived, and for different reasons - in this case, a sad reason. I'm thinking of Frankenstorm.

ZIMMER: Yes. Before Hurricane Sandy, there were a lot of people trying to come up with a name for what to call this gathering storm. And someone from the National Weather Service actually suggested Frankenstorm, because it was a hybrid of different weather systems, like Frankenstein's monster, and it was also going to hit around Halloween. And, in fact, Frankenstorm was deemed a little too light-hearted by news organizations, like CNN, which decided they didn't want to trivialize the impact of the storm. So the word that most people latched onto was superstorm after Sandy made landfall and lost its hurricane status.

MONTAGNE: One set of words from last year gave rise, in a strange sense, to another expression, and that was the 1 percent, the 99 percent that came from Occupy Wall Street. And the 47 percent comment that was made by candidate Mitt Romney seemed to resonate, because we already had these other words in our lexicon.

ZIMMER: Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, if you think about the impact of last year's Occupy movement, the idea of breaking the population into percentages based on some sort of economic factor was powerful. When Romney was talking about the 47 percent in his notorious speech at a fundraiser in Boca Raton, which was surreptitiously recorded, that expression, the 47 percent - to refer to those who do not pay federal income tax, and according to Romney, were therefore predisposed to vote for Obama - that became a real touchstone of the conversation about the election.

MONTAGNE: There were also a lot of gambling metaphors being used this year. What do you think that says about the mood of the country?

ZIMMER: Well, it is interesting that there was a lot of talk, for instance, of doubling down. Now, that's a term that comes from blackjack, so it's this high-risk, high-reward move. But it's been extended to politics, the tech world. It can be a positive thing. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said it was a great time for people to double-down on Facebook, even though they had this terrible IPO. It can also be used negatively. For instance, Bill Clinton talked about Mitt Romney as someone who will double-down on trickle-down, which is a nice turn of phrase.

MONTAGNE: What word do you think is leading the pack for word of the year?

ZIMMER: I don't think there's any clear frontrunner this year. Last year, I think it was pretty obvious going in that Occupy was the prohibitive favorite. Certainly, the term fiscal cliff has been used a lot in the past few months, and that could end up being the winner, in the same way that, for instance, bailout was the winner for the American Dialect Society four years ago. It could be coming from pop culture or the tech world. There's a lot of possible choices this year, and I don't see one clear frontrunner.

MONTAGNE: Ben, thanks again for joining us.

ZIMMER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Ben Zimmer is the language columnist for the Boston Globe. A link to his latest column can be found at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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