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January 30, 2000 - Word of the Millennium - 2002-02-01

INTRO: A scholarly group that studies American English recently chose its "Word of the Millennium" and its "Word of the Century."

Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble discuss the selections.

MUSIC: "She"/The Sundays

AA: The Word of the Millennium chosen by the American Dialect Society has just three letters.

RS: S-H-E. It's the pronoun "she."


"When you get to the past thousand years of the English language and you ask yourself for one word that has been so significant, and so characteristic and so fundamental in the entire millennium, that's a considerable challenge."

RS: That's Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. Seventy people - mostly scholars -- gathered in Chicago earlier this month for the Society's yearly meeting.

AA: Nominees for Word of the Millennium included "freedom," "government," "news," "truth" -- even the universally used American expression, "OK." RS: Allan Metcalf says "she" received thirty-five votes. The word "science" was runner-up with twenty-seven votes.

AA: We asked Alan Metcalf how "she" came into our vocabulary.


"Before the year 1000 there was a feminine pronoun in Old English but it was the pronoun he with an added vowel - `hay-oh' is how you pronounce it. 'He' was the masculine, 'heo' was the feminine. The masculine was spelled h-e and the feminine was spelled h-e-o. And furthermore h-e-o meant `they,' so it was the plural as well."

RS: Then, early in the millennium, "she" began to replace "heo" [HAY-oh]


METCALF: "We're not sure where it came from. It might have come from the Scandinavian languages because of the Viking invasions. Or it might just have been a change that otherwise occurred. But suddenly there was a very distinctive pronoun `she' which is not at all the same as or derived from `he.' And that seemed like such an important development that that became our word of the millennium."

RS: "How did it evolve - where was it first seen either printed or recorded so that you could actually date it?"

METCALF: "It's dated around the year 1100, and of course that's before printing, so it's in various manuscripts and exactly how it got there, unfortunately those who wrote the manuscripts didn't stop and say, `by the way, here's a new pronoun and here's where I got it.'

"They assumed it was normal. But one of the things that happened between the year 1066 and about the year 1400 was that the people in charge of England spoke French. There was the Norman Conquest and after that every ruling person in England spoke French. And that meant that all the editors and teachers and people who are concerned about the language spoke French. They didn't care at all about English, so even a pronoun could change without some editor saying `wait a minute, you've got the wrong pronoun.' It just happened."

AA: "Today people take pains to say `he or she' and we're seeing more and more `they' -- sort of `he' and `she' being lumped together -- so you're not favoring one gender over the other."

METCALF: "I suppose if we had the kept the old pronouns we could just use /hey-oh/ -- it would be /he-oh/ nowadays -- and that would be the plural. And the interesting thing is that it would be related more to the feminine than to the masculine. We would then have a plural, which was basically feminine. That might have advanced the women's cause by centuries."

RS: The American Dialect Society also chose a Word of the Century: "jazz."

AA: Allan Metcalf says a sports writer first used the word "jazz" in 1913 to describe a baseball pitcher as having "a lot of jazz."


"It was such a new word that in the San Francisco newspaper that used the word, the columnist then wrote a whole article about the meaning of `jazz' as peppy or enthusiastic."

MUSIC:"Maple Leaf Rag"/Butch Thompson

RS: But musicians in San Francisco quickly picked up the word "jazz." From there it headed east to Chicago, then south to New Orleans, where by 1915 it had become the new name for "ragtime" music.


"The nice thing about 'jazz' is that it is a very American word. It involves African American culture. It involves the first truly original American style of music. It characterized an entire era - the Jazz Age - and it is still going strong at the start of the new millennium."

MUSIC: "Around Midnight"/Miles Davis

AA: Allan Metcalf at the American Dialect Society.

RS: Now a programming note: Starting next Sunday Wordmaster will be broadcast one half-hour later.

AA: Write if you need help finding us. Send e- mail to, or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.


(The American Dialect Society also chose "Y2K" as its Word of the Year for 1999 and "Web" -- as in the World Wide Web on the Internet -- as its Word of the Decade.)