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Pluto Is Reborn as a Verb, While Surge Becomes a 'Hot-Button Word'

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: our guest is Wayne Glowka, an English professor at Georgia College and State University.

RS: He also chairs the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, which publishes the quarterly journal American Speech. Members of the society voted earlier this monoth for their seventeenth annual Word of the Year.

WAYNE GLOWKA: "The word of the year was 'pluto,' the verb, as in 'I've been plutoed.' There's quite a bit of surprise in people's eyes when you tell them that Pluto is now a verb."

RS: "Now how did Pluto become a verb? Tell us the story here."

WAYNE GLOWKA: "Well, last year, the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto did not have the qualifications it needed to be a planet like the other planets, and demoted it to something else. And so some clever person somewhere looked upon this situation and said, 'Well, Pluto's been plutoed, and if I'm demoted or rejected or scorned, then I'm plutoed, too.'"

RS: "Now it went against the phrase 'climate canary.' Tell us about that one."

WAYNE GLOWKA: "Well, a climate canary is an organism or a species whose poor health or declining numbers hint at a larger environmental catastrophe on the horizon. The species cited was the polar bear. The polar bears hunt seals by walking around on Arctic floating ice -- in the Arctic Ocean, and as this ice breaks up, the polar bears find it very difficult to get out on the ocean in order to get the seals they need to eat."

AA: "And climate canary, in the end, was, I see, voted Most Useful. Now, under the Word of the Year nominees was the term 'surge,' which is of course very much in the news now, in terms of the president's move to increase the troops in Iraq. I'm surprised that in the runoff you had fifty-seven votes for pluto, forty-three for climate canary, but only four for surge. Were you surprised by that result?"

WAYNE GLOWKA: "No. I mean, a lot of this has to do with the political leanings of the people who are there and their worldview, and a good number of these people live in urban areas and are very concerned about climate change. I mean, this is my own personal observation, that people who live in cities worry about that kind of thing more than people who live in the middle of a big forest, the way I do.

"Surge, however, had a little bit of support in the beginning. But the problem with surge is, it showed up so late in the year, it didn't sound all that new to some people -- because, you know, we do talk about a 'surge in statistics,' 'surge in applications' and things like that. And someone argued that the word is more likely to be more important in two thousand seven than in two thousand six."

AA: "Most of the time, when we see it in the newspaper, it's in quotation marks. Can you explain why that is?"

WAYNE GLOWKA: "The general feeling is, if you're against the surge, the general feeling is that the word is somehow marked, that it's a euphemism for something else ugly like 'escalation,' which is a Vietnam term which actually was an attempt at euphemism too, to make the increase in troops sound better.

"So, to a lot of people, it still sounds like jargon from the Pentagon or it sounds like sort of political manipulation. But if you're on the other side of the political spectrum, then it sounds like a perfectly normal way of talking. But I had a very interesting day with two sets of re -- two reporters, one who didn't understand what the fuss was about, and the other who was very concerned about the surge and asked me question after question, almost like a prosecutor, trying to get me to say things about surge that he wanted me to say.

"So the word is very loaded at the moment. I've been noticing in the last week or two that the Democrats in Congress have been using escalation and I noticed that Bush avoided using surge when even he talked about it on that special night."

AA: "You're talking [about] his speech explaining his plan."

WAYNE GLOWKA: "Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it's kind of a hot-button word and I imagine that editors feel uncomfortable with it, and so would put it in quotation marks."

RS: Professor Wayne Glowka at Georgia College and State University, and the head of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. To find out more about American English, check out our Web site,

RS: And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.