One way to remember a year is through the vocabulary it left behind. Mitt Romney’s campaign redefined not just a beloved childhood toy, but also a now-infamous percentage of the electorate. A meningitis scandal shone a light on a once-obscure kind of pharmacy. A hurricane in New York hinted at ever more destructive storms.
compounding (n., adj.)
Until this year, few people outside the health care world had even heard of compounding pharmacies, which are supposed to make custom preparations of drugs for patients with special needs. That changed when a deadly national outbreak of fungal meningitis was traced to Framingham-based New England Compounding Center. The pharmacy and affiliate companies were shut down, amid questions about how the compounding industry had grown so large without attracting tighter scrutiny. The lack of state oversight felled top officials like dominoes, including the state pharmacy board director and the state public health commissioner, and likely hastened the departure of the state health and human services secretary. Lawsuits are underway, criminal prosecutions are likely for the company’s owners, and the Food and Drug Administration is being criticized on Capitol Hill for its own weak oversight. They became a textbook example of how lack of regulation compounds into tragedy. — DERRICK Z. JACKSON
The new 787 isn’t the largest plane in the air. Its advancements are more environmental — better fuel efficiency; more humidity in the cabin, making for less jet lag. So what to call a next-generation Boeing airliner that proudly pushes beyond the old “jumbo jet” and “wide body” designations? The Dreamliner.
The first one entered US service in Boston last spring. With an airport whose runway is too short for a fully loaded Airbus 380 or Boeing 747 bound for Asia, New Englanders had been forced to change planes when flying to Japan and beyond, adding hours and hassles. Businesses take such inconveniences seriously; Logan Airport’s constraints became those of the local economy. Fortunately, the Dreamliner doesn’t need to rumble halfway to Worcester before becoming airborne. Nonstop service to Tokyo began in April. Eight months later, Japan Airlines reports nearly full bookings.
The dream the 787 answered was Boston’s. — PETER S. CANELLOS
47 percent (n.)
Mitt Romney was born in 1947. He made his political debut — a failed challenge to Senator Ted Kennedy — in 1994, when he was 47 years old. He lost his presidential bid last November, garnering just 47 percent of the popular vote. The number 47 has played a curiously prominent role in Romney’s political career.
But there was nothing curious about the political damage caused when a leaked video showed Romney telling a group of supporters that 47 percent of voters would back President Obama unconditionally because they are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims.” Like the Vietnam “brainwashing” gaffe that ended his father’s presidential hopes in 1967, Romney’s “47 percent” comment touched on a legitimate national concern — in this case, unease about government and dependency. But those words, so easily exploited, roused the Democratic base, giving Romney’s foes a bludgeon to wield with relish. — JEFF JACOBY
talking points (n. pl.)
They are scripted words, meant to highlight the best arguments and information available. Politicians stick to them. Bad things, like candor, happen when they stray. Yet for Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, sticking faithfully to talking points prepared by the US intelligence community about the attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya, cost her the chance to become the next secretary of state. Republicans accused her of covering up the truth about the murderous assault, and she withdrew her name from consideration. If only those talking points could talk. Imagine what they could tell us: Who was really behind the editing that took out references to a possible terrorist attack, and why was Rice asked to present them on national TV? — JOAN VENNOCHI
There are no superstorms. Sandy, the late October storm that caused catastrophic damage on parts of the East Coast, was just a very destructive hurricane. The term superstorm, which came to be widely applied to Sandy, has no scientific meaning. It is entirely subjective. Which made Sandy’s concrete aftermath — the broken buildings, flattened homes, and human casualties — so bizarre to see.
Ultimately, the word superstorm says much less about the measurable qualities of a hurricane than about the conditions facing its potential victims. A superstorm like Sandy merely exposes the consequences of climate change and the dense cities we build right up to the unprotected shore. Superstorms exist because we live and have built in ways completely incompatible with the climate changes we are causing, resulting in multi-billion dollar damages. These super-expensive storms are ultimately a product of our own making. They are “super” only because we made them so. — JULIETTE KAYYEM
check the box (v.)
During a tough Senate race, incumbent Scott Brown repeatedly insinuated that challenger Elizabeth Warren had unfairly used claims of Native American heritage for career advantage — metaphorically checking an ethnic-minority box on a hypothetical job application. Although Warren insisted she had long heard from family members that she had Cherokee and Delaware Indian blood, she never produced any evidence to substantiate that heritage. But neither did reporters unearth any evidence that Warren’s career as a law professor had benefitted by her claim.
Even so, Brown kept pounding away at the issue long after polls showed that voters had lost interest in the matter, a mistake that helped undercut one of his principal political assets: his image as a nice guy. And when election night came, Brown, once considered a rising star on the national Republican stage, discovered to his chagrin that almost 240,000 more voters had checked the box for Warren than for him. — SCOT LEHIGH
Honey Boo Boo (n.)
America’s most controversial reality TV star this year was a 7-year-old beauty-pageant contestant from rural Georgia whose real name is Alana Thompson. She and her family star in the hit TLC series “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” which documents their Dumpster-diving excursions, weight-loss efforts, and eating habits. (It has also spawned other notable new words, including “sketti” — a dish composed of spaghetti, ketchup, and butter — and “redneckognize.”) Is the show about a bunch of proud bumpkins who fart a lot, or an unpretentious, loving family? Actually, it’s both. Honey Boo Boo’s newfound fame touched off a debate about whether TLC was portraying the family in a condescending way.
But that misses the point; in their recession-era frugality and their struggles with weight, the Thompsons were a lot like the nation as a whole. They just happened to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the nerve to run with it. — JOANNA WEISS
game (n., v., adj.)
In a year of Olympics and elections, an ever-versatile word found many distinct uses.
game face: US gymnast McKayla Maroney’s podium scowl after winning a silver medal provided one of the biggest Internet memes of the year — “McKayla Maroney is not impressed.”
off his game: President Obama seemed almost asleep during the first presidential debate Oct. 3, in a gift to both Mitt Romney and “Saturday Night Live.”
ground game: Fortunately for Obama, legions of paid staff and volunteers in swing states ran effective phone, direct mail, and get-out-the-vote campaigns, which helped the incumbent win a seemingly tight election by nearly 4 points.
gaming: A euphemism for “gambling,” which was supposed to herald an economic boon in Massachusetts but has yet to yield a single blackjack table.
game over: Curt Schilling’s video-game company, 38 Studios, filed for bankruptcy in June, making Rhode Island seriously regret giving the onetime Red Sox superstar loan guarantees to locate there. — HEATHER HOPP-BRUCE
Gangnam style (n.)
Every so often, American music fans swoon for a foreign-language pop song that seems to come out of nowhere. But there was more to “Gangnam Style” than its catchy chorus or South Korean performer PSY’s goofy dance moves. It was also a reminder that as East Asia’s economic prominence increases, so too will its cultural might. As Samsung smartphones proliferate in pants pockets around the globe, and Hyundai cars multiply on the highways, South Korea’s growing prosperity is said to be most evident in Gangnam, a wealthy neighborhood in Seoul. And a certain lavish, ostentatious attitude has come to be called Gangnam style. PSY, a onetime music student in Boston, insisted in a Reddit discussion that his song is “just FUN!” Yet others hear it as a satire of South Korea’s 1-percenters. “Gangnam Style” is just a fad. But if South Korea keeps growing, there’s more Gangnam style to come. — DANTE RAMOS
illegal-immigrant students, or future GOP constituency?
Iron Dome (n.)
Israeli missile defense
a debate over guns — and semantics
legitimate rape (n.)
a distinction that destroyed a Senate campaign
fiscal cliff (v.)
hot trend in start-up world
Atlantic cod (n.)
sometimes mislabeled; target of controversial quotas
Etch-A-Sketch (n., v.)
Romney fills the screen, then shakes it clean
Jesus’ wife (n.)
Harvard scholar stirs controversy
can Greece keep the euro?
fare evader (n.)
MBTA’s new bete noire
global payment (n.)
goal of new Mass. health cost law
unskewed polls (n.)
of course your candidate is winning
maps app (n.)
Apple goes off course