Illustration: Simon Letch
IT'S a fever, a seasonal thing, and if we may allowably mix the metaphors of heat and moisture, then Word of the Year fever is about to rain down on us.
It is the time when the previous year's ''best'' new words are variously listed, voted for, publicised, and in some way legitimised. It's when linguists, lexicographers and their sort come up with their final list of WOTYs. A year ago, defriend (verb) and tweet (noun, verb) were dominating the lists, attesting yet again to technology as a powerful driver of word inventiveness.
At its most innocent, the list-making is a way of keeping the content of dictionaries in line with the living lexicon. Now that dictionaries are mostly electronic, they can no longer explain any lag as being ''between editions''. The pressure is on to maintain reliable currency.
The longest-running list is that of the 122-year-old American Dialect Society, which has been choosing words since 1990. Their winner for 2010 is ''app''.
Oxford University Press even publishes an annual book to announce winners and runners-up. Then there's Collins English Dictionary, which has long prided itself on being the most reliably up-to-date dictionary of global English.
Five years ago, Macquarie Dictionary jumped on board with its lists of Australian usage. Word of the Year fever has been detected in European capitals (Berlin, Amsterdam) and in the East (in Taipei, Tokyo). The German Language Society publishes its own list of most-used new words of the year: the latest winner, just announced, is Wutbü¨rger (no, not a new fast food), reflecting a year of angry mobs taking to the streets to protest unpopular government measures.
Comparing the various lists is tempting but ultimately pointless - we're talking apples and oranges. For starters, the various dialects of English will naturally reflect their users' orientations. For instance, the last nine Word of the Year words chosen by the American Dialect Society were grounded in American discourse: 9/11 (2001); WMD (2002); metrosexual (2003); red/blue/purple states (2004); truthiness (2005); pluto (2006); subprime (2007); bailout (2008); and tweet (2009).
Then again, different list-makers establish different criteria (for example, most popular, most zeitgeisty). They also vary selection processes (from academic committee to popular votes) and they differ in the range and type of categories (the society has fewer than 10 categories; this year Macquarie has 18).
Further, while the society uses evaluative categories such as ''most useful'', ''most outrageous'', ''most (and least) likely to succeed'' etc, other list-makers are content to name a winner per category, plus an overall word of the year. Some lists focus on words new (or newly popular) to English; others, like Merriam-Webster Dictionary, look at ''the volume of user look-ups'' for those that best sum up the year (their 2010 winner is ''austerity'').
Others choose to specialise, like blogger Lynne the linguist, at a blog called ''Separated By A Common Language'' where the focus is on the movement between American and British Englishes. Or the folk at Urban Dictionary whose spotlight is on spoken slang, and whose 2010 word of the year is ''gate rape''.
While relatively young, Macquarie Dictionary, headed by Susan Butler, has developed its own particular style of word of the year. Lists of new words in various categories are collected throughout the year and posted on their website in December, with readers invited to vote for their favourite in each category, as well as Word of the Year.
Rather like the Archibald portrait prize, a formal committee, composed mostly of academics, makes the final decision, while the People's Choice awards are judged according to popularity. Last year, the formal award went to ''shovel-ready''; while the People's Choice went to ''tweet'' (a year on, no explanation needed).
Despite the differences among the lists, some broad patterns are discernible. There's the predictable influence of technology - web was the word of the decade in 2000; google, of the decade, 2010. Economic impacts are pervasive. Witness last year's GFC, subprime, bailout, toxic debt, staycation, frugalista etc and this year's hot contender, bankster. Political and social changes are reflected in new words (bio-terrorism, citizen media), environmental themes are increasingly prolific (carbon footprint, spillion), as is sport (age fraud). And, of course, the influence of popular culture continues amok (belieber, buddymoon).
Why bother with all the palaver? Language is far and away our most human attribute and new-word lists are a ready source of insight into who we are and who we're becoming. These lists serve as a kind of lexical time capsule where the time spans have dramatically shrunk. We've had our very own Gutenberg event over the past two decades, changing everything we do - from communications to dental surgery - and we can hardly now remember or imagine life pre-internet.
Words, of course, have their own lives, with biographies and adventures all their own. They even develop their own folk mythologies, rather like urban myths. Each year hundreds of new words and phrases are coined. Some vanish almost immediately and some are absorbed into the lexicon from where any number of eventualities may arise. Depending on who takes them up and how, they largely chart their own trajectories.
Take tsunami, a loan word from Japanese, originally borrowed in the first decade of the 20th century but catapulted into widespread use following the catastrophic disaster on Boxing Day 2004. This week the term ''inland tsunami'' was used to describe the deadly wall of water that swept through Toowoomba. Tsunami's lexical development is telling. A major event launched the word's global arrival and, at first, its use was literal and pinned to a particular event. This then popularised, resulting in a loss of literal specificity as well as the association with the when-and-where of Boxing Day 2004. New meanings, looser and less literal, emerged. Now, it's not uncommon for tsunami to be a near-flippant way of saying ''a lot''.
Typically, as a new word becomes ''indigenised'', it develops related meanings and grammatical forms (like tsunami as a verb), enabling people greater flexibility for making their meanings. This process is deplored in some quarters, interpreted as a sign of falling standards, questionable moral fibre or general indolence. But, hey, let's not get sidetracked. Language is a living thing, it's always in motion and mostly driven by the street not the academy.
Predicting the fate of new coinages is a thankless task. A new word like vuvuzela may be launched by a particular event but may not develop beyond its original locale. Some new words (like toe cleavage) are driven by fashion - in time they may vanish or be resurrected depending on fashion. Some terms (such as muffin top) come in because of a trend (low-cut jeans causing excess flesh to overflow the waistband) but embed themselves so successfully that even when the fashion moves on the term persists. New words (for example, webisode) are often delivered on the wings of new technology and then destined to hang around until the next whizz-bang thing.
It's too soon to say what fate awaits refudiate, winner of the 2010 Oxford American English Word of the Year. From the moment Sarah Palin used it in a tweet, she was lampooned with a George W-like derision. Linguists analysing how Palin uses the word are suggesting a generalised sense of ''reject'' but the jury remains out. By this time next year, perhaps depending on Palin's political fortunes, more may be revealed.
A selection of new words from around the world
age-fraud (n) misrepresenting a sporting competitor's age to gain an advantage
app (abbrev.) (n) software application
Ausschaffung (German) (n) expulsion (from Switzerland), specifically of foreigners convicted of serious crimes
bankster (n) banker-gangster; a predatory member of the banking industry in a declining economy
belieber (n) blend of Bieber-believer, a fan of pop star Justin Bieber
buddymoon (n) honeymoon where friends are invited along
bullycide (n) suicide induced through bullying
cablegate (n) the scandals associated with WikiLeaks
citizen media (n) when report/comment is provided by the public
coffice (n) coffee shop habitually used by customers attracted to the free space, electricity, Wi-Fi facility
gate rape (n) new body-scan security measures at US airports
googleganger (n) person who shares your name and who gets mixed up with you in Google searches
hacktivism (n) Using computer hacking skills for political activism
halfalogue (n) half a conversation, such as an overheard phone call
MAMIL (n) acronym for Middle-Aged Men in Lycra, noted for their professional-quality accoutrements
niveaulimbo (German) (n) voted Germany's 2010 "youth word", meaning ''limbo level'', a reference to an ever-declining quality, whether of TV or conversation
nonversation (n) encounter where attempts at conversation go nowhere
neurosexism (n) belief that sex differences are fixed in the brain not derived from culture
pluto, or be plutoed (v) to downgrade or demote someone or something from a prestigious group, as done to the former planet Pluto
poutrage (n) faux outrage, usually put on for some personal, financial or political gain
precycle (n) anticipating, rather than reacting to, the causes of waste
prehab (n) preventative rehab to forestall a relapse
quantitative easing (QE) (n) monetary policy that increases the supply of money to stimulate a failing economy
recession flu (n) umbrella term for symptoms possibly induced by fear of un(der)-employment
refudiate (v) notoriously linked to Sarah Palin, this is a semantic mash-up of refuse/refute/repudiate
screwage (n) corkage for a screw-top bottle
shovel-ready (adj) ready to begin as soon as funding is assured
sofalize (v) British marketing term for people who socialise from home, electronically. Staying-in is the new going-out
spillion immeasurably large number. Good for crude oil spills
tart noir (n) genre of crime fiction featuring a tough, independent, sexy female protagonist
tsunami (v) to arrive, occur suddenly in large quantities
vuvuzela (n) device responsible for the 2010 World Cup soundtrack
webisode (n) episode that first appears as internet TV
Wutbü¨rger (German) (n) an enraged citizen