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A Decade in Words

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, December 16, 2009

It's list-making season again. Time magazine got out of the gate early with its list of the year's top buzzwords, along with lists of the ten top albums, apologies, fashion faux pas, and viral videos, among others. They had lot of lively catchphrases to choose from -- sexting, wise Latina and beer summit, not to mention all the labels for people with doubts about the President's birthplace, his plans to pull the plug on granny, and whether the Tenth Amendment allows the federal government to provide health care at all. The tea-baggers, the birthers, the deathers, the tenthers -- it sounds less like a political movement than the bill for a thrash metal concert in Cleveland.

But words from headlines tend to be short-lived. They get their moment in the sun, then fade as quickly as a tan line. You think of the headline words from years past -- daisy cutter, spider hole, cruciflick, bennifer… They're of a piece with the category that Time calls "top fleeting celebrities," the linguistic equivalents of Nadya Suleman, Carrie Prejean, Stephanie Birkett, and the Salahis -- see, you forgot already.

The more interesting words are tied to cultural phenomena, and usually catch on more slowly. For its word of 2009, the Oxford American Dictionary chose unfriend, as in "As soon as I heard what she said, I went online and unfriended her." It's not a bad choice to stand in for the rise of social networks: it works the same bizarro alterations on the structure of an ordinary word that the social sites do on the structure of ordinary personal relationships. Granted, it has been around for a few years, but then these cultural trends can take a while to spread across the social landscape. By the time you can get good arugula in Tulsa, it's already coming off the menus in Tribeca.

As it happens, this is one of the years when the odometer goes around two places, and the members of the American Dialect Society, which originated the word-of-the-year business twenty years ago, will also be selecting a word of the decade when they meet in Baltimore in early January. I got a list of the nominees from the lexicographer Grant Barrett of Wordnik, who has been taking suggestions via email and tweet.

I wasn't much interested in trying to pick a winner -- that will almost certainly come down to one of a handful of obvious candidates like 9/11, terrorism, Google, or green. But to me, the interesting exercise was to see what picture emerges when you try to take in a whole decade's worth of words in a single glance. I stopped writing these down when I got to about 200 of them. I could have kept going, but the list already seemed like a hopeless hodgepodge. Swine flu and sudoko, terrorist fist jab and freedom fries, maverick and macaca  -- it reminded me of a TV commercial for one of those Hits of the 1970s compilation CDs, with a succession of songs by Gloria Gaynor, Neil Diamond, Kool and the Gang, and The Clash. What exactly did they have in common, other than that they all happened to be on the air in the same season?

But there were patterns. Some groups of words formed miniature narratives: wmds, cakewalk, shock and awe, mission accomplished, backdoor draft, hillbilly armor, stay the course, redeployment. That's basically the story, in ten words or less.

Not surprisingly for the decade that divided the country into red and blue, its language was culturally conflicted. It pronounced approvingly on metrosexual and moved queer into prime time, at the same time politicians were raising the specter of man on dog and adolescents were turning gay into a new synonym for lame or uncool. It gave us the terms cougar and femocracy; it also revived "stand by your man" and created dad-and-daughter purity balls and the verb bitch-slap.

In the world of techno-prefixes, e- and cyber- were out and i- was in, along neuro-, eco-, blogo- and of course tw-. Technology also brought us malware and the pop-under, insidious successor to the pop-up, not to mention the assorted ailments known as cell phone neck, Blackberry thumb, Nintendo elbow and Facebook fatigue.

It was a boom decade for the lexicon of snark, starting with snark itself. We were busy voting people off the island, throwing them under the bus, and generally not here to make friends. It was the era of LOL, WTF, and the new interjection meh, an expression of bored indifference that has acquired more than 400,000 enthusiastic Facebook fans. And when efforts didn't come up to standards, we dismissed them with the pitiless finality of Fail!

There were the zombie words, revived after years of quiescence. Chad had all but disappeared along with the punchcard when it was brought back for a final turn in 2000. Socialist and socialistic were disinterred as partisan epithets, several decades after they had been retired from the stock Republican convention speech. And zombie itself was revitalized as a prefix for insolvent banks and corporations that were kept alive by infusions of government cash.

Like every decade, it was rich in euphemisms. Some brought new creativity to familiar topics -- "have a wide stance," and "hiking the Appalachian trail" for sexual embarrassments; "negative equity" and "distressed assets" for financial ones. Others broke troubling new ground. What was most disturbing about "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "extraordinary rendition" wasn't that they were indirect; it was we were actually having those discussions at all.

We've come a long way since the 1990's, in their blissful ignorance of zombie banks and ninja loans, dirty bombs and IEDs, lolcats and bromances. But you can also get a read on the character of the decade when you recall some of the phrases that didn't catch on. We stopped saying "If we do that the terrorists will win" -- in fact we stopped talking about "the terrorists," period. We didn't abandon country for homeland. We bailed on "evildoers" while the "coalition of the willing" was bailing on us. And we wound up the decade giving the cheese-eating surrender monkeys their own chef shows on Bravo. It's a changed language we speak now, but not as much as it looked like it might have been.


Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.