The American Dialect Society is what its name implies, a society concerned with the American dialect of English (and is not really what its catchphrase claims, a society interested in “the English language in North America”). They publish an annual Word of the Year list, always including an entry from my esteemed colleague Grant Barrett, who now also writes an annual piece in the Times (2009; 2008).

Wordlists from all nominators but one are nonsensically provided as PDFs. Since nobody else has bothered, I have merged and deduped all nominees and present them here without comment, attribution, or definition. (Well, one comment: Some of them are obvious nonstarters and a few of them just stink.)

American Dialect Society Word of the Year nominees, 2009

  1. AGW
  2. angry mob
  3. aporkalypse
  4. app
  5. athey
  6. balloon boy
  7. beer summit
  8. birther; deather; Tenther
  9. black jail (or prison)
  10. bloggerati
  11. bonus tax
  12. botax
  13. Brooks Brothers brigade
  14. Cadillac health plan
  15. cap-and-trade
  16. car tone
  17. Cash for Clunkers; CFC; C4C
  18. charging station
  19. Chimerica
  20. Climategate
  21. cloud computing; the cloud
  22. coffee summit
  23. conflict minerals
  24. cougar
  25. cow tax
  26. cramdown
  27. crash blossom
  28. curate
  29. dark pool
  30. death panel
  31. Dracula sneeze
  32. drive like a Cullen
  33. DWT; TWD
  34. El Stiffo
  35. FAIL
  36. flash trading
  37. freemium
  38. furcation
  39. gay-marry
  40. go rogue
  41. Government Motors
  42. Great Recession
  43. green shoots
  44. H1N1; heinie
  45. hiking the Appalachian trail
  46. hill to die on for
  47. hopium
  48. hyperlocal
  49. hyperpalatable
  50. I’m(m)a let you finish
  51. Irrational Disbelief Syndrome
  52. jeggings
  53. layaway
  54. mancession
  55. meep
  56. mini-Madoff
  57. moblogging
  58. netbook
  59. Obamacare
  60. Octomom
  61. optic; the optics
  62. orphan books
  63. Pashtunistan
  64. Poliwood
  65. porkulus
  66. public option; robust public option
  67. reset; hit the reset button
  68. sext; sexting
  69. shovel-ready
  70. slow media
  71. smart power
  72. social distancing
  73. socialize
  74. Susan Boyle moment
  75. swine flu; swine-flu party
  76. tea party; teabag; teabagger (also cap)
  77. thumb novel
  78. too big to fail
  79. torture memos
  80. tweet; Twitterable, -ability; Twitterverse
  81. un-
  82. under water
  83. ununbium (manifestly not cap)
  84. vampire
  85. vook
  86. warmist
  87. wee-weed up
  88. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
  89. WiMax
  90. wise Latina
  91. you lie!
  92. zombie; zombie bank

Missing, because they came into prominence in mid-December: Hopenhagen and Nopenhagen. Also missing: BPA for bisphenol A, which I insist people are mispronouncing.

What’s the word of the year?

For the American dialect, it’s no contest: birther. Now hold that thought.

What’s the Canadian word of the year?

That’s a good question. I wish I knew. I wish I’d been keeping track of Canadian English neologisms, but even if I had, there wouldn’t be many. All I can think of are listed below. (Remember, a word does not have to have been coined in ’09 to become a candidate.)

  • CBD; CBI; CBT (cumulative brain damage/injury/trauma); cf. CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in American football
  • charcuterie
  • detainee
  • Furious George
  • head of state
  • HST (Ontario only)
  • Iggy
  • prorogation
  • Section 13
  • TV tax; fee-for-carriage

What’s the winner? Looking at this list, here too it’s no contest: Iggy (nickname for Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff).

What about unfriend?

English academics, members of a social class that couldn’t manifest exuberance even if stabbed with a shiv (as members of their lower orders are wont to do late night on weekends), hoisted teacup daintily to mouth and came up with unfriend as Word of the Year.

Go back to cutting the crusts off your watercress sandwiches, St. John. This nomination made something clear to me that had always been nebulous: The effect of being just slightly too far away from American culture.

Canadian nationalists, i.e., the country’s ruling elite, continually decry the influence of American culture on our country. They’re especially upset about American TV, which is odd considering how little TV they’d actually admit to watching. (Surely they are at home reading the latest Alice Munro in original hardcover – or, if particularly PC, the latest Benji Vanssanji?)

Let’s assume there exists, somewhere in Canada’s flyover states as the elite insinuates, an idiot/prole class that can’t even tell American Idol isn’t shot here and has nothing to do with this country, despite declaring such in its very title. For them, American TV isn’t “American TV”; it’s just entertainment. But nobody does entertainment better than the Americans.

Now, there actually is a subphylum of this ruling elite that isn’t actively repellent. This group needs to be in constant contact with American culture – real, actual contact, sort of like the two countries’ borders rubbing against each other. For them it’s not entertainment; it’s feedstock for analysis and commentary. We (indeed “we”) need complete access to American culture so we can understand it and understand how we’re different from it.

If you’re close enough to American culture to read, listen to, watch, and see nearly everything they do (and at exactly the same time, for that matter), then you understand that any and every Word of the Year is always going to come from the United States. Entertainment is all about selling old wine in new bottles. The occasional fringe activity of selling new wine or new bottles is little more than a rounding error on the balance sheet.

A word of the year is going to look and act like a word. It may already have been a word since time immemorial. Either the bottle or the wine is going to be old. And where will you have heard this word? From Americans.

But if you live in a distant colony like England or Australia, you’re just slightly too far away from American culture to really understand it. You need to be soaking in it and you aren’t. Maybe you get splashed by it on a really hot day when you walk by its lawn sprinkler. (Those references probably don’t even work in your country. Either you don’t have lawns or it’s too hot to walk that far.) You aren’t plugged in, and you actually resent American culture even more than the Canadian ruling elite does. (Because you still think America is the colony?)

So the best you can come up with is unfriend, despite the fact that the place you unfriend somebody is a system Americans invented and run. You’re so steeped in your own air of superiority you can’t even summon the honesty to admit you’re actually nominating a British word of the year – and you still end up with an American word!

If you’re an honest assessor of the English language, you have to concede that the word of the year is birther. It doesn’t matter if they don’t exist in your country and you don’t understand how they could exist anywhere and think they’re total nutbars in the first place and how could anyone but Americans be that stupid? Nominate anything else and you’re just an out-of-touch snob who, it appears, only recently noticed that Facebook exists.

Now, why am I saying all this when the nomination of unfriend is clearly marked as the work of the Oxford American dictionary and “Oxford’s U.S. dictionary program”? Because you can take Oxford out of Britain but not vice versa. Oxford is a company that deludes itself it can cover Canadian English by remote control, so I just don’t believe them when they claim to have their finger on the pulse of American English.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.12.22 13:30. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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