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Remembering 2008 in a Word, 'Bailout,' and a Name, 'Barack Obama'

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, and this week on WORDMASTER: we check in with Grant Barrett at the American Dialect Society for the results of its 19th annual vote for words of the year, in this case for 2008.

GRANT BARRETT: "The Word of the Year was bailout -- b-a-i-l-o-u-t. Bailout. And I should say that it doesn't have to be a new word. It has to be newly prominent. And certainly the usage of this term has spiked since the federal government has been called in to rescue banks and automobile manufacturers and a variety of companies with a bailout. Because that's what a bailout is, it's a form of rescue.

"It beat in a runoff -- that is, we have one round of voting with all the candidates -- bailout beat 'Barack Obama.' Now that's a name, but we were judging it as what we call a combining form. That is, Barack and Obama as separate words have been used to coin oodles and gobs and just loads of other words. It's a very productive combining form, as we would say in linguistics."

AA: "So, for example."

GRANT BARRETT: "Oh, like Obamamania, just to describe the way that some people are crazy about the man. Obamination, used by people who aren't crazy about the man as a play on the word abomination, a-b-o-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n, which is something negative."

AA: "Right. So you've got the Obamanation, would be a good thing, right, to supporters."

GRANT BARRETT: "That's right."

AA: "And Obamination would be -- "

GRANT BARRETT: "They sound, in the mouths of Americans, they sound almost exactly alike. You have to carefully articulate yourself and say it very slowly in order for the difference to be heard. But most people, you can't tell the difference except if you're reading it in print."

AA: But the name of the next president, who will take office on Tuesday, was the winner in the category of Most Useful.

GRANT BARRETT: "Well, I don't know how it couldn't be the winner there, given there were so many words coined off of his name that Slate magazine made a book out of them, a little dictionary. And I fully except the next four years to be Obamalicious as people keep coining more and more words off of his name.

"You know, the thing about Obama, the last name in particular, is that it's vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. It's really easy to say and it lends itself to form blends. That is where you take two words and you mix them together. Particularly if their syllable, like the last syllable of Obama, is the same as the first syllable of another word, it's very easy to blend them."

AA: "I've got to ask you, one more category here -- the Most Creative. The term was, I see it's -- I'm not even sure how to [pronounce it] -- 'recombobulation area.'"

GRANT BARRETT: "Oh, isn't it delightful? But you immediately understood what it means, right?"

AA: "Well, once I read the definition. Tell me, what is a recombobulation area?"

GRANT BARRETT: "Well, I guess we should explain, because I know it's not quite like this all around the world, but in American airports there's a big security procedure before you can even get anywhere near an airplane. It even involves taking off your shoes, sometimes taking off your belt, having your suitcase X-rayed. Maybe even they'll pass a handheld metal detector over your body. It's very serious -- "

AA: "This has mostly been, or largely, since the attacks in two thousand one."

GRANT BARRETT: "That's right, mostly in the last seven to eight years. And so when you finish passing through that process, usually your coat is off, your shoes are off, maybe your belt in is in your hand, you're looking for your cell phone. All this stuff is coming through the X-ray machine bit by bit in plastic tubs where you've placed it.

"So you're trying to put your phone back in your pocket and your belt back on your pants and your shoes back on your feet and your coat back on your shoulders. And you're trying to pull your bags at the same time. And maybe even you've got a child who you're trying to help or somebody else. You're discombobulated, and discombobulated is a fancy word saying that you're disorganized and out of sorts and you don't have your act together.

"And so somebody at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, decided that they needed just a little bit of humor. So above the chairs that they've placed there where you can kind of get yourself back in order, they've put a big sign that says 'Recombulation Area.' And it's a word that didn't really exist before they used it. And every time people see that, they grin a little bit. It eases you, it makes you feel just a little better. It actually works remarkably well, because it's a place where you don't expect a joke. I'd love to see recombobulation area become the standard term for this at airports across the country."

AA: Grant Barrett is vice president of the American Dialect Society and co-host of the public radio show "A Way With Words." And that's WORDMASTER for this week. We'll post a link to all the winning words at our Web site, I'm Avi Arditti.