Verbal Energy

It’s WOTY season

The Monitor’s language columnist wonders how anyone can pick just one Word of the Year.

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In the true spirit of Christmas, which impels retailers to deck their halls with boughs of plastic holly while the Halloween candy is still on display, lexicographers start announcing their picks for Word of the Year before Thanksgiving.

The New Oxford American Dictionary (NOAD) has named its Word of the Year for 2009: unfriend. As a verb it means “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site.” The choice of a word related to social media was not surprising. What did surprise some, though, was the choice of an essentially negative word. 

Richard McManus, a technology blogger who is editor of ReadWriteWeb, commented, “All the trends indicate there has been more social networking activity this past year – not less (as ‘unfriend’ implies). Facebook and Twitter have rocketed in popularity.”

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Another interpretation might be that social media have caught on to the point that people must cull their online “friends,” perhaps by trimming them back to include, oh, I don’t know, maybe only people they actually know. Or does that sound too 2008?

NOAD could have chosen friend, but that would have had to be explained: friend as a transitive verb. “I friended him on Facebook.” That’s not the same thing as “We became friends” or “We made friends.” The American Heritage Dictionary lists friend as a transitive verb, but tags it “archaic.” Befriend goes back to the mid-16th century, and presumably covered the same ground as make friends.

There’s a whiff of difference, though. Befriend is what someone does to someone else, as a kindness. An older couple might befriend an impecunious student. “Making friends” sounds more reciprocal.

The WOTY at Webster’s New World Dictionaries is distracted driving. Webster’s New World makes its choice to call attention to cultural changes. Editor in chief Mike Agnes has commented that this new phrase has led to initialisms such as DWD, driving while distracted, or DWT, driving while texting. “We’re building up a whole semantic cloud around this social and now legal issue.”

Merriam-Webster, another dictionary publisher, has taken a different approach. Rather than focus on what one blogger called “novelties,” M-W makes its choices on the basis of actual user look-ups. Its WOTY for 2009 is – brace yourself – admonish. Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina was “admonished” by his House colleagues this year after he exclaimed, “You lie!” during a presidential address. 

The Merriam-Webster list tends to reflect the words that come up in the news stories of the year. The list is of words that writers use because they’re exactly the right word – admonish has a precise meaning in Congress, for instance – and then people must look them up to find out what they mean. Distracted driving may be a new term for a new umbrella concept, but any English speaker in the United States will understand it at once.

That doesn’t mean distracted driving is without lexicographical interest. Editor Agnes called it an example of hypallage. It rhymes with analogy, and comes from a Greek word meaning “interchange.” It’s a literary device that lets you get away with saying things that are not all that logical. It’s not the driving that’s distracted; it’s the driver. Likewise, in the case of a “careless remark,” it’s not the remark but the speaker who is careless.

I don’t know about Word of the Year, but I’ve got a new Word of the Week.

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