This was a year shot through with uncertainty: economic, political, and even meteorological. But even in the shakiest, most anxiety-ridden times, we seek solace in the endless productivity of words, coining the new and breathing life into the old to make sense of our world.
Looking back on the words that defined 2012, one senses that we were grasping for fresh ways to create order out of all the chaos, racing to name things exuberantly and fast. In retrospect, sometimes all we are left with is a pleasing but problematic linguistic shorthand for less-than-tidy events and concepts.
Consider the naming debates over Hurricane Sandy. Since the storm was shaping up to be a hybrid of different weather systems, and because it was scheduled to strike the East Coast over Halloween, Jim Cisco of the National Weather Service suggested Frankenstorm as “an allusion to Mary Shelley’s gothic creature of synthesized elements.” Others got more creative: Eric Holthaus of The Wall Street Journal blended snow, nor’easter, and hurricane into snor’eastercane.
But that wordplay seemed out of place when the destructive power of Sandy became clear. Frankenstorm was deemed too lighthearted by CNN: “Let’s not trivialize it,” management told the network’s talking heads. After Sandy made landfall and lost its hurricane status, the network opted for the more prosaic superstorm.
A month earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought verbal clarity over a different kind of gathering storm. At the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu held up a cartoonish drawing of a bomb representing Iran’s nuclear program and drew a red line. “I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down,” Netanyahu said. Red line had already become established in Israel’s rhetoric over Iran (the Hebrew version is kav adom), a seemingly brighter delineation than a line in the sand. But Netanyahu’s bold red line masks a muddy geopolitical picture.
On the home front, another portentous idiom has taken over Capitol Hill since November’s election: the fiscal cliff. Though the phrase has been floating around since the 1950s (with fiscal precipice going back to the 1890s), a statement by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in February made it the go-to description for the threat of massive spending cuts and tax increases at year’s end. But is it really a cliff? Some pundits argue that we’re facing more of a hill or a slope.
Frankenstorm, red line, and fiscal cliff are all in the running for the Word of the Year, to be voted on by the American Dialect Society at its annual meeting next month. (The meeting will be held in Boston on Jan. 4; I’ll be on hand as the society’s chair of the New Words Committee.) Before you ask: Yes, phrases like red line and fiscal cliff are acceptable WOTY candidates, as long as they could appear as dictionary headwords. And it’s OK if nominees are not entirely new, as long as they’re newly prominent.
In an election year, the prominent words are often campaign-related—and this time around, political lingo bubbled up faster than ever. The 99 percent and 1 percent of last year’s Occupy movement were replaced by the 47 percent, as Mitt Romney (in a notorious speech at a Boca Raton fund-raiser) dismissively called voters who do not pay federal income tax. Others on the right called them moochers, takers, or lucky duckies. In the end, of course, it was Romney who ended up with just 47 percent of the vote.
In general, the 2012 political terms we remember emerged from ceaseless partisan sniping. Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom suggested that his candidate could shake up his campaign after the primary “like an Etch A Sketch,” and Democrats saddled Romney with the metaphor, portraying him as a serial reinventor of policy positions. Barack Obama inartfully told a crowd “You didn’t build that” when discussing government investment in infrastructure and education, and building that (with that left strategically vague) turned into a major theme for the Republican National Convention.
The RNC might be most remembered for Clint Eastwood’s unscripted colloquy with an empty chair, which inspired satirists to post pictures of themselves Eastwooding, along the lines of earlier photo fads. Social media helped popularize such lexical frivolities, but it spread some useful terms as well. Need a word for a man’s condescending explanation of something obvious to a woman? That’s mansplaining. What about the masochistic act of following a television show you despise? That’s hate-watching. And let’s not forget the youth-culture acronym of 2012, YOLO (for “you only live once”), though as a ready-made excuse for juvenile behavior it has already passed its sell-by date.
As I survey 2012’s lexical crop, one phrase seems to encompass how we’ve dealt with the year’s messiness: double down. Borrowed from the blackjack table, this expression has been used everywhere from politics to technology to describe amping up a high-risk strategy. It’s been used negatively, as when Bill Clinton called Romney “someone who will double down on trickle-down,” and positively, as when Mark Zuckerberg announced that it’s “a great time for people to double down” on Facebook after the company’s disappointing IPO. With the American people having doubled down on Obama, it’s no surprise to hear that “Double Down” is now the working title for a book about the 2012 election by the authors of “Game Change.”
The omnipresence of double down this year speaks to American traditions of risk-taking going back to the frontier days. In theory, we might like our leaders to display bold, decisive action and an unwillingness to back down. But double down is a double-edged sword, if the gamble doesn’t pay off. That ambivalence makes double down a perfect phrase for 2012, capturing our uneasy, collective desire to defy the insecurity that surrounds us.
What words from this year will persist in years to come? Will we worry about pink slime in our processed meats? Will the easing of marijuana restrictions in states like Colorado and Washington encourage ganjapreneurs? I’m willing to make one prognostication: As with the Macarena a decade and a half ago, I think the new year will mark the moment when we can finally stop dancing Gangnam style.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.