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Dictionary editors have fun with 'word of the year'
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


November 01, 2007
Thursday AM

The words "grass station" may leave many of you scratching your heads, but to the editors of Webster's New World College Dictionary, the phrase is hot -- so much so that the publication this week deemed it the 2007 Word of the Year.

The phrase -- a pun on "gas station" reflecting America's growing love affair with hybrid cars and vegetable-based fuels -- follows last year's esteemed champion, "crackberry," the word describing the addictive nature of the omnipresent BlackBerry.

"It just tickled our funny bone," Mike Agnes, editor in chief of the Webster dictionary, said of grass station. "It demonstrated how inventive American English speakers are with the language."

Whether other dictionaries agree remains to be seen. That other Webster conglomerate, Merriam-Webster, also chooses a word of the year but not until December (last year's was "truthiness"). Editors at the New Oxford American Dictionary choose a word of the year, too. It's due to be announced in mid-November. Its 2006 winner was "carbon neutral."

Bringing up the rear in this naming-of-the-word-of-the-year activity is the American Dialect Society, the 117-year-old organization that includes linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, professors and others. Its 2007 winner will be announced in early January. "Plutoed" was its word for 2006, which means to demote or devalue something, as what happened to the former planet.

Few of the words may ever make it into the dictionary, but that isn't the point. The idea is to simply highlight the latest words or phrases that have found their way into the American vernacular, sometimes only to find their way out again.

"The word of the year contest is really a way for us to celebrate linguistic change as it happens," said Wayne Glowka, dean of arts and humanities at Reinhardt College in Georgia, who also is a member of the American Dialect Society's word of the year committee. "History is occurring every day because words are made up of new ideas and new things. We think it's important as linguistic scholars to let people know how language is changing."

The dialect society was the first organization to name a word of the year, in 1990, and the dictionary companies followed.

The New World College Dictionary, which first published in 1951, employs two "language monitors" who do nothing but review books, newspapers, graffiti and radio and TV reports to document emerging English, Agnes said. Grass station, he said, was first noticed in a headline on the New York Times op-ed page in February 2006. The editors settled on this term out of more than 200 buzz-worthy contenders.

Since Webster's New World started the words of the year in 1996, only a few have made it into the dictionary, including "shapeshifter," its winner for 1996; "paparazzi," (1997); and "E-," as in e-mail, (1998).

The popular "senior moment" (2000) and "tween" (2001) are still waiting for entry.

Merriam-Webster, the 176-year-old company that claims to be the direct lexicographical heir of Noah Webster, has used various criteria in its selection of word of the year. Last year's was based on an online survey; in previous years, the winner came from the most searched words in its online collegiate dictionary, which can reflect what's hot at the moment in popular culture or world affairs.

Grant Barrett, a lexicographer who is vice president of the American Dialect Society, already has a few words he plans to nominate for 2007:

"Jailbreak," which refers to what people have to do to their iPhones to get them to run software not made by Apple, and "windshield cowboy," a cattle rancher who drives a truck instead of riding a horse (Laura Bush used this phrase to describe President Bush, who drives a pickup truck.)

Two others refer to Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican who was arrested on disorderly conduct charges in an airport bathroom in June: "toe-tapper," which means homosexual and "wide stance," which means someone who is hypocritical.

Still, he says, all this effort to identify the key word of the year is worth very little.

"None of these people, including Merriam-Webster, are taking themselves seriously," he said. "It's just folks having fun."



Virginia Linn can be reached at vlinn(at)
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