Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year: 'hypermiling'

For the third year running, the Oxford English Dictionary has selected a green-themed term as its word of the year.

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

For the third year running, the Oxford English Dictionary has selected a green-themed term as its word of the year. This year the word is "hypermiling."

According to the Oxford University Press blog, the term was coined in 2004 by Wayne Gerdes, who runs CleanMPG, a web community for those trying to squeeze the maximum number of miles from every gallon of gas they put in their tanks. Oxford defines "hypermiling" as attempting "to  maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques."

Some of these adjustments are pretty straightforward – removing all the heavy stuff sitting in the trunk, turning off the A/C, avoiding sudden braking and jackrabbit starts, coasting to stops, anticipating traffic up ahead, and generally driving smoothly.

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But other techniques are more extreme. Some hypermilers over-inflate their tires to reduce rolling resistance.  Or they roll through red lights and stop signs. Or they coast with their engines off. Or they draft behind semis.

A couple years back, Dennis Gaffney, a reporter with Mother Jones magazine took a white-knuckled ride through Chicago in Mr. Gerdes's Honda Accord :

As we take off – or, more accurately, as the vehicle rolls forward really slowly – I notice that all four windows are closed and the AC is off. I'm sitting in one of the most technologically advanced cars in the world, and it feels like I'm trapped in a fanless tollbooth in Biloxi, Mississippi, in August. We take the interstate to Wayne's house. The speed limit is 55, and most of the traffic is zipping past at 75 or so, but Wayne hovers around 50 mph. He's riding the white line on the right side of the right-hand lane.

"Why are you doing that?" I ask from the backseat. "It's called ridge-riding," he explains, using another term he's invented. He ridge-rides to let people behind him know that he is moving slowly. I imagine it's also a way to avoid dying plastered to the grill of a semi. Ridge-riding, Wayne explains, saves gas in the rain, as it gets the wheels out of the puddly grooves in the road created by more, let's say, traditional drivers. "People are burning fuel to throw water in the air," he says, adding that you can hear if you're driving in the road's grooves or out of them. That's interesting, but I'm having a hard time concentrating, because my back and butt are beginning to stick to the seat. "Is anybody a little warm in here?" I ask.

I don't think Wayne hears me, because, as a Chevy Tahoe whizzes by, he notes, "I imagine that it's getting 10 to 13 miles per gallon climbing this hill. We're getting about 80. It'll drive you crazy." I'm thinking that hypermiling consists of driving like a 90-year-old in a mobile sweat lodge, but I'm about to find out I'm wrong. Really, really wrong.

"Buckle up tight, because this is the death turn," says Wayne. Death turn? We're moving at 50 mph. Wayne turns off the engine. He's bearing down on the exit, and as he turns the wheel sharply to the right, the tires squeal—which is what happens when you take a 25 mph turn going 50. Cathy, Terry's wife, who is sitting next to me in the backseat, grabs my leg. I grab the door handle. As we come out of the 270-degree turn, Cathy says, "I hope you have upholstery cleaner."

(An appeal to my readers: Please don't drive like this anywhere in the Boston area, where I live.)

Hard-core hypermilers often gather for fuel-efficiency contests, such as the Fuel Economy World Championships, held this year in  Elkhart, Ind. Gerdes took first place, eking out 136 miles per gallon with his Prius.

Of course, the very fact that they all gather together just to drive in a big circle raises the question of whether hypermilers are really all that green to begin with. What about the fuel saved by those who don't bother to attend these events?

As I said earlier, the OED's choice makes for lexical hat-trick: Last year's pick was "locavore" – a term for a person who tries to conserve fuel by eating only foods grown locally. In 2006, the word of the year was "carbon neutral" (which looks to me like two words, but who am I to argue with the OED?).

As USNews's eco-blogger, Maura Judkis, notes, "hypermiling" had some stiff competition from other green words, such as "frugalista" (someone who saves money, but does so fashionably), "rewilding" (the process of returning an area to its original state), "carrotmob" (an organized attempt to support an ethical business by having everyone patronize it at the same time), and "staycation" (a vacation in which you don't go anywhere).

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