Verbal Energy

A new Word of the Year seizes its place?

The most striking thing about one of this year's leading contenders for Word of the Year may be how straightforward it is.

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Here we are, still polishing off Thanksgiving leftovers, and already it's time to pick a Word, or Words, of the Year.

What kind of Words of the Year do we want? A blog at Dictionary.com, "The Hot Word," noted that the online reference polled its Facebook audience to find out: "Overwhelmingly, voters said it should be a complex word that exemplifies the spirit of 2011."

A strong contender at this point: occupy, from the "Occupy Wall Street" movement and its related Occupy [Your Place Here] offshoots.

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In an "On the Media" interview, Ben Zimmer, head of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said: Occupy "is this extremely useful word for the movement because as it spread[s] to other cities, it can very easily just work as a kind of a template. Occupy blank, Occupy the-name-of-your-town-here...."

The most striking thing about occupy is how straightforward it is. It's an actual word that's already in all the dictionaries, and it's made its name this year in a usage that goes back centuries. Compare, by contrast, unfriend, the New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year for 2009.

Occupy, meaning "to take possession of," goes back to the mid-14th century, ultimately from the Latin occupare, where it meant essentially the same thing, but with a more forceful sense of "grasp" or "seize." That's the meaning of the Latin word capere, from which it derives. (It's also related to capire, "to understand" or "to 'get' " something – capisce?)

Occupy has a military connotation, but also has a connection with employment. So the idea of Wall Street or wherever "occupied" by many who are themselves "unoccupied" (unemployed) has a certain symmetry.

Dictionary.com's list of WOTY candidates includes several it calls "Apt but Obscure." One that intrigues me is oppugnancy. It means "opposition" or "resistance," with more than a whiff of "contrariness" in there. But can't you almost tell that from looking at it? And doesn't it sound like something that blew in on the zeitgeist of 2011? It's related to repugnant (etymologically, something so unappealing that you'd fight back against it) and also pugnacious, both derived from pugnare, a Latin word meaning "to fight," from the word for a clenched fist.

Tergiversation, another entry under "Obscure but Apt" lacks the advantage of looking like what it means; in fact, it lacks the advantage of a single clear meaning. WordNet's two quick definitions are "the act of abandoning a party or cause" and "falsification by means of vague or ambiguous language."

The word shares a back end with the much more common conversation. This word came into English in the mid-14th century from Old French. It originally meant actions – one's dealings with another – rather than just words, and is rooted in the idea of "taking turns with someone." Tergiversate carries the notion of turning one's back on someone or something, tergum meaning "back."

A quick Google News check just now has turned up 37 hits for tergiversation, all in French, where it has at least roughly the same meaning. This is not a good sign that the word is catching on in English. When I searched the whole Web, I did get pages in English, but the top hits were all dictionary listings.

Occupy may yet be the best candidate to move into the space of Word of the Year.

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