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Some (Online) Words to Help Remember a Year and a Decade

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: some words to help us remember 2009.

RS: The American Dialect Society, a small scholarly group, just chose its Word of the Year as well as a Word of the Decade. Wordsmith Ben Zimmer, a guest of ours from time to time, tells us the nominees for word of the year.

BEN ZIMMER: "One that I was kind of pushing for was 'fail' as a noun or interjection used to describe something egregiously unsuccessful. This is a kind of online interjection that got very popular and then became used frequently as a noun, as in 'epic fail.' So that was a word that I had nominated. It actually won in the category of Most Useful.

"We had a couple of other sort of health-related terms. One was 'H1N1.' By the end of the year, people were actually using that H1N1 to refer to the virus rather than simply saying 'the swine flu virus.'"

AA: "Or calling it 'hiney' or 'hinney.'"

BEN ZIMMER: "That's true. [Laughter] That had been suggested -- hiney or hee-nee -- as a way to pronounce that. We also had 'public option,' obviously a much discussed component of the health care reform bills before Congress this year. And we also had the suffix '-er' as in 'birther' or 'deather.' So people who questioned whether Obama was born in the United States were disparaged as 'birthers.'

"People who believed in the so-called death panels -- 'death panel,' by the way, won in the Most Outrageous category. That was a term that Sarah Palin had introduced when talking about the health care legislation, that supposedly these death panels would be set up. So people who believed in that were disparaged with the term 'deather.'"

RS: But Ben Zimmer says the winner was actually nominated from the floor during the voting session at the society's convention in Baltimore, Maryland.

BEN ZIMMER: "Someone wasn't really satisfied with these choices that we had in front of us and said 'I would like to nominate tweet.' 'Tweet' being either a noun or a verb, the noun referring to an update on one's Twitter account, and then tweet as a verb meaning to post an update on Twitter."

RS: "And the word of the decade?"

BEN ZIMMER: "The word of the decade, after much spirited discussion, the selection was actually 'Google.' Google used as a verb meaning to search the Internet."

AA: "So now, as a keen observer of the language, and one who I imagine Googles a good deal here, can you fill us in on some of the other 'word of the year' votes that were put out there. We've been seeing in recent days, different dictionaries and companies all sort of choosing a word of the year, maybe a word of the decade. What are you seeing out there?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Yeah, it's become very popular to select a word of the year. American Dialect Society started doing it twenty years ago and we were the only game in town. But now there are lots of others who are getting into the act.

"And so, for instance, the New Oxford American Dictionary had a very good choice I thought as word of the year, and that was 'unfriend.' Unfriend, meaning to remove someone from one's friend list on Facebook or some other social networking site."

AA: "So that was one choice. What about some others?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, Merriam-Webster went about their choice a little differently this year. They based their word of the year on what people were looking up on their online dictionary and thesaurus. So the one that they ended up choosing was rather unusual. It was 'admonish.'

"And the reason that admonish got looked up so frequently was because of the incident involving the Congressman Joe Wilson who shouted out at Obama during his address to Congress. He shouted out 'You lie.' The House of Representatives decided to admonish Joe Wilson for what he had done, but they didn't go so far as to rebuke or censure him. So it's a slightly milder form of criticism or chastisement."

RS: Ben Zimmer is executive producer of

AA: Next time, we'll join the discussion about what to call the first decade, actually the first two decades, of this century. What do you suggest? Post your ideas at

RS: Where you can also find transcripts and MP3s of our segments. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.