What a difference a year makes. One way to get a bead on what we were thinking and talking about throughout 2005 is to look at the new words that came - or came back - into our lives.
A number of different dictionary publishers, and others, have helpfully offered up, in recent weeks, their takes on "word of the year."
New words for new things are a particular kind of candidate for this distinction. The New Oxford American Dictionary has chosen "podcast," which it defines as "[A] digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player."
Erin McKean, editor in chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary, said: "Podcast was considered for inclusion last year, but we found that not enough people were using it, or were even familiar with the concept. This year it's a completely different story."
Words of the year are not all new, of course. Some of us remember "tsunami" from earth science class in school. But "tsunami," as the one-word summary of the Southeast Asian tragedy, one of the year's major events, surely deserves a place on the list of words of 2005.
"Refugee" is another word of the year (WOTY) because it was a WITN (word in the news). When it was applied to the hundreds of thousands evacuated to safety from hurricane Katrina, however, some saw an attempt to deny those in the shelters their full status as citizens.
I'd have to call "integrity" the sleeper hit of the wordsmithing year. Not hip or flashy, it was nonetheless the No. 1 most often looked-up word in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary. It's a quality being sought, and, alas, not always found, in corporate financial statements, in research data, in the statements of political figures under indictment. No wonder it's being sought in an online dictionary, too.
In Webster's New World College Dictionary (the dictionary used by the Monitor), "infosnacking" was the word of the year. It refers to time people spend at work doing things not related to their job - e.g., checking movie listings or their home e-mail account.
It's a word of our time, because in an age when everybody seems to do everything in front of a computer screen, "work" and "play" can look very much alike.
You can even flirt with that new hottie in the accounting department over the same instant messaging program the boss thinks you're using to get real-time data from the shop floor.
But some word-watchers, including Webster's editor in chief, Mike Agnes, speculate that "infosnacking" may not end up in the dictionary after all.
"When the editors spotted the word 'infosnacking' late last year in an Associated Press story," the Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., reported, "they thought the term for acquiring discrete bits of information on various Web sites during office hours might stick. It didn't."
Mr. Agnes told the paper, "We have no explanation for this."
Some words of the year, it appears, are words of that year, and then that's it.
• This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy