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What we talked about in 2011

The year in language

Occupy: A protester in Spain wore a Guy Fawkes mask, symbolic of the hacktivist group "Anonymous.” The words on the bill read "We won't be silenced.”Susana Vera/Reuters/Reuters

Approaching the end of the year puts us all in a reflective mood. For word-watchers, it’s time to cast an eye back on the past 12 months, looking to see how the latest developments in our shared lexicon reveal something of the spirit of the time. Which words of 2011 were the zeitgeistiest?

Tiger Mom: Amy Chua, author of the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” read excerpts from her book at Harvard Bookstore on February 22, 2011.Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staf/Globe Staff

The emergence of new words is fun to watch, and it can also tell us something deeper about the culture. What were we thinking and arguing about? What was significant enough to us that we needed to expand our linguistic palette just to accommodate it?

In any year, many of these additions to the language will be shiny new baubles lacking much staying power. Five months later, who still cares about carmageddon, the not-so-apocalyptic weekend in July when the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles was closed down? Even for language experts, it’s next to impossible to predict what will fade from the scene and what will linger on. Who would have guessed a year ago that a memoir about hyper-disciplined parenting, Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” would spark a national conversation about the pros and cons of tiger moms?

Over the next few weeks, the members of the American Dialect Society will be mulling over these questions in advance of anointing a Word of the Year on Jan. 6. I’m the chair of the society’s New Words Committee, which means I have the privilege of wrangling the assembled crowd of scholars as they spiritedly argue for their Word of the Year choices, as well as a variety of other categories, such as Most Creative, Most Useful, Most Outrageous, Most Euphemistic, and Most Likely to Succeed.


What words are in contention in 2011? The official list of finalists won’t be drafted until we’ve all gathered at our annual meeting in Portland, Ore. But this year, heading into the final stretch, casual handicappers agree that the odds-on favorite is occupy, an old word invested with new meanings thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Occupy spread like wildfire over the last few months, serving as a kind of self-fulfilling organizing principle for protests over financial inequalities, as well as a terse rallying cry for the demonstrators’ experiments in “participatory democracy.” Proof of just how entrenched occupy has become can be found in the innumerable parodies: Occupy Sesame Street, Occupy Lego Land, Occupy Uranus, Occupy My Couch.


Some other Occupy-related terminology could also be in contention: The slogan “We are the 99%” has catapulted the 99% into common consciousness (and has also proved ripe for satire). Then there are the peculiar methods of mass communication at the “occupations” in New York and elsewhere: homegrown amplification by means of the human microphone or people’s mic (whereby people surrounding a speaker shout out what is said line by line) and registering one’s opinion with gestures known as twinkling or jazz hands (fingers wiggled up in the air for agreement or down for disagreement).

The history books may remember 2011 primarily for the Arab Spring (a name modeled on the Prague Spring of 1968), which brought down repressive regimes and put pressure on many others. Leaders targeted by the Middle Eastern protests were prey to satirical jabs through wordplay. In the final days of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in Egypt, clever souls on Twitter competed to come up with the best definition of Mubarak as a verb, including “to fail to get the hint, regardless of how obvious it may be.” Protest signs in Tahrir Square had a brusque message for Mubarak: game over, borrowed from video game lingo.


Playful language was used to lampoon leaders in the West as well. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, done in by revelations of so-called bunga-bunga sex parties, was an easy target. But the more sober vocabulary of the Obama administration was also turned on its head by political opponents. When President Obama spoke of winning the future in his State of the Union address, Sarah Palin gleefully pointed out that the phrase could be abbreviated by its initials, which also stand for another, cruder phrase. And when a New Yorker article quoted an Obama adviser describing the administration’s Libya policy as leading from behind, the words provided endless fodder for derisive Republican foes.

When we talked in 2011, we often talked about talk. Social media sites in particular fed our self-reflective (some would say narcissistic) urges. Twitter popularized the humblebrag, a term coined by the comedian Harris Wittels to call out the faux-humility of celebrity tweets. On Facebook, a new autobiographical “timeline” feature stitches together what Wake Forest University communications professor Ananda Mitra has dubbed narbs, short for “narrative bits.” Meanwhile, on Google Plus, the policy of insisting that “plussers” register with their real names precipitated the nymwars, pitched by those who prefer to lurk behind pseudonyms.


With the economic picture as gloomy as ever, the vocabulary of popular culture tended to focus on frivolous diversions from grim realities. Charlie Sheen’s ludicrously self-confident mantras, like winning and tiger blood, were an ironist’s delight, though it was never clear to what extent Sheen himself was in on the joke. Internet memes encouraged people to pose for photographs in bizarre positions, whether it was flat-out planking, crouched owling, or prayerful Tebowing in imitation of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. Offices and even whole towns staged elaborate lip dubs, videos featuring choreographed lip-synching to pop music. New online subcultures reveled in self-conscious weirdness: Witness the bronies, grown male fans of the “My Little Pony” franchise.

Winning: Actor Charlie Sheen greeted fans as he arrived at a Colorado courthouse.Rick Wilking/Reuters

For language observers, all of this innovation is exciting to behold, though the effort to keep up with it all is ultimately exhausting. Another fine candidate for Word of the Year sums up the overwhelming anxiety one feels upon realizing that there’s always more out there: FOMO, an acronym for “fear of missing out.” Though many of us may have suffered from FOMO in 2011, it was hard to feel bored in a year when new words and meanings bubbled up at a dizzying pace.

This week marks Ben Zimmer’s debut as a regular Word columnist for Ideas. He will be writing every other week, alternating with Erin McKean.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.