The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, November 29, 2021

Words of an Odd Year

At this time of year, dictionaries announce their Words of the Year. It’s a bit of a publicity exercise, to be honest, and not something to set too much store by, but still fun to see what gets chosen. This year’s selections have been a bit of a mixed bag and many of them have left me thinking “hmm, odd choice” - but then maybe that appropriately reflects what an odd, discombobulating sort of year it’s been.


Different dictionary publishers use different criteria to choose their Words of the Year, some of which are clearly stated, some less so. Cambridge’s choice is based (largely) on the most popular word that people have looked up on their dictionary website and this year was announced as perseverance - which at first sight seems an odd choice. It’s popularity was linked to the NASA Mars rover called Perseverance that landed back in February. It saw a huge spike in lookups, likely from two sources - English learners who wanted to know what the word meant and also L1 English speakers who wanted to check the spelling. To me, it feels like a slightly odd choice, regardless of the stats, just because it refers to such a specific moment, quite early in the year, but I guess it does also chime with the perseverance we’ve all had to demonstrate in living through a second year with Covid.

Graphic divided into four squares with a word in each square. 1 Oxford: vax; 2 Cambridge perseverance, 3. Collin NFT, non-fungible token; 4 Australian NDC strollout

Collins, on the other hand, have gone down the new coinages route, choosing novel words and terms that have appeared, or at least gained a foothold, this year. Their shortlist was topped by NFT or non-fungible token - yes, exactly, neither do I! Again, it feels a slightly left-field choice, but their shortlist more generally does reflect some of the themes of the year with several tech-related words (NFT, metaverse and crypto), some pandemic words (double-vaxxed, pingdemic and hybrid working) and miscellaneous others - as I said, it has been a miscellaneous sort of a year, so maybe that’s appropriate.

Oxford went for perhaps the most obvious choice, vax, with an accompanying report into the language of vaccines. American dictionary, Merriam-Webster also went for vaccine. Probably for many of us, it is the word that best reflects the year, but then it doesn’t provoke much debate, does it, or make you read on to find out why.

I think my favourite WOTY comes from the Australian National Dictionary Centre who plumped for strollout - apparently a term to describe the slow pace of the vaccination rollout in Australia. Yes, it’s one of those gimmicky buzzwords that was probably coined by a headline writer, but it does definitely tell you something about a time and a place.

Words of My Year

From a professional point of view, I’ve worked on a mix of projects this year that have had me delving into different types of vocabulary. I started off the year researching idioms and phrasal verbs for new editions of two books - Work on Your Idioms and Work on Your Phrasal Verbs (both for Collins). We were focusing on the most frequently-used items in each group, so not necessarily touching on low-frequency trending words. However, we did add call out to the unit on Reporting in the media, which I think has proved to be quite key this year, with unacceptable behaviour being called out in all kinds of areas of life. Here are a few key collocates I found from recent corpus data.

Examples of usage of the phrasal verb call out, without key collocates highlighted: Women are too afraid to call out bad behaviour for fear of losing a job. It came only after the company was publicly called out by several people on [social media]. This has been rightly called out as hypocritical. This behaviour must be challenged and called out.

Recently, I’ve spent more time than you would think is feasible researching prefixed words for another project. I’m not sure that any of them would be candidates for WOTY, but to continue the ‘odd year’ theme, they’ve definitely sent me off in some peculiar directions, including getting to grips with the philosophical concept behind antirationalism and trying to understand the physics of multipole.

I’ve also spoken about language change - and its relevance to ELT - at a number of events, both this year and last. What struck me when I was putting together my most recent session for TESOL France was the degree to which I needed to update my examples of coronavirus-related vocabulary. Words that had sprung up in the early days of the pandemic when we were all coming to terms with lockdowns - like coronadodging (trying to avoid people on the pavement to maintain social distance) and quarantinis (quarantine cocktails, sometimes shared with friends via Zoom) - already feel quite passé and have instead been replaced by terms that reflect the place of Covid as a mundane reality in our everyday lives - like corona-related and covid-appropriate.

On a more personal note, I think one word I’ve used a lot in 2021 has been hermity - as in, I’m getting quite hermity. (Yes, it’s a made-up word. Apparently, hermitic or hermitical is the adjective from hermit, but doesn’t feel quite the same) After so long staying at home, avoiding crowded places and barely travelling, I’ve definitely got used to a more isolated sort of existence and my re-entry is proving to be a slow one. Although there have been few official restrictions in the UK since the summer, I’ve felt wary about getting back to normal activities and have continued to mostly stay at home - partly out of caution and a sense of social responsibility, but if I’m honest, as much out of habit. I’m still feeling that life is very much 'on pause', so for 2022, I’m hoping that something will prompt me to 'press play' again.

Labels: , , ,


Blogger Philip said...

Interesting to contrast 'call out', associated with negative behaviour, with 'shout out', associated with praise?

11:07 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Philip ... I hadn't thought of that one - or the interesting contrast. You mean as in "give a shout out to sb", like a name-check on the radio or whatever? A quick corpus search just turned up plenty of examples of "a birthday/big/huge shout out to sb" - all positive. Does it get used as a verb or is it mostly a noun?

11:17 am  
Blogger Philip said...

Mostly a noun, I think.

1:49 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home