“I don’t think there’s any clear frontrunner this year,” Zimmer told Renee Montagne. There are two strong contenders, though. “Certainly, the term fiscal cliff has been used a lot in the last few months, and that could end up being the winner, in the same way that, for instance, bailout was the winner for the American Dialect Society four years ago.”
Interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” about Word of the Year candidates for 2012 (Dec. 28, 2012).
There is a major decision coming up that will truly define the year 2012. Yes, it’s almost time for the American Dialect Society to once again vote on the Word of the Year. Will it be selfie? Hate-watching?Superstorm? Double down? Fiscal cliff? Or (shudder) YOLO?
Ben Zimmer is a language columnist for The Boston Globe and chairman of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee. He tells NPR’s Renee Montagne that the Word of the Year can be either a word or a phrase, as long as it’s achieved new prominence in 2012.
The recent discovery of several instances of “the whole six yards” in newspapers from the 1910s — four decades before the earliest known references to “the whole nine yards” — opens a new window onto “the most prominent etymological riddle of our time,” said Fred Shapiro, a librarian at Yale Law School who announced the findings in next month’s issue of The Yale Alumni Magazine.
Other language experts agree about the import of the discovery. “The phrase is interesting because it’s so mysterious,” said Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Visual Thesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com, who has written previously on the search for its origin. “It’s been a kind of Holy Grail.”
Fiscal cliff, Gangnam Style, YOLO, Frankenstorm, malarkey…these are just a few of the words and phrases we’ve picked up during the last year. In this hour, Ben Merens and his guest “double down” and look at the top words of 2012. Guest: Ben Zimmer, executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He writes a biweekly language column for The Boston Globe and is the former “On Language” columnist for The New York Times Magazine.
We have seen this time and again, with Americans “finding words to match their ideological point of view,” said Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Boston Globe and executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. It can result, he said, in a collision of euphemisms and their linguistic opposites, dysphemisms.
“Death tax” is a good example of a dysphemism, favored by lawmakers determined to do away with what is more neutrally known as an “estate tax” (or far from neutrally, by some just as determined to preserve this levy, a “Paris Hilton tax”). For a doozy of a euphemism, try “enhanced interrogation technique” to describe a practice like waterboarding, regarded by much of the world as torture.
Republican strategists have been notably adept at shaping debates with phrases that pack an emotional wallop: “partial-birth abortion” for a form of late-term abortion that is resorted to infrequently; “elites” as virtually a synonym for liberals; “job creators” to ennoble the super-rich.
“When Sarah Palin was talking about ‘death panels’ in the health care debate, it certainly created a kind of visceral backlash,” Mr. Zimmer said, “especially at a time when Democrats in Congress were talking about ‘the public option,’ which sounded quite bureaucratic and antiseptic.”
The BBC examined the etymology of the phrase of the moment. The lexicographer Ben Zimmer discovered that an 1893 editorial in The Chicago Tribune warned: “The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice.”
Zimmer traced the first use of “fiscal cliff” to the property section of The New York Times in 1957, in an article about people overextending their finances to buy their first home. Ben Bernanke imprinted the term on the public consciousness last February, pointing ominously toward Jan. 1.
At first, its virtual identity was clear: a pithy farewell, sweeter than See you later, less personal than Love. Men could xo their wives. Girlfriends could xo girlfriends. It was a digital kiss—meant, of course, for somebody you’d actually kiss. But soon enough, nonstop e‑mails and IMs and tweets began to dilute its intimacy factor. “You could compare [it] to how the epistolary greeting Dear changed over time, originally just for addressing loved ones but eventually becoming neutral,” says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicologist.