Words of the Year and the Century

AAllan at AOL.COM AAllan at AOL.COM
Wed Jan 19 00:51:26 UTC 2000

<< Why would you use when the term was popular rather than when it was first
(supposedly) used/recorded?  I'm curious about the rationale for that
decision. >>

David Barnhart and I used both kinds of dates in _America in So Many Words_
because both were of interest. Sometimes a word or phrase is prominent when
first used, like gerrymander (1812) or teddy bear (1906). Often, though, a
word can be coined and used in a small circle for a while, then become widely
used, as in the case of Ebonics (1973, 1996-7). There are many cases of
familiar words taking on new connotations and significance, like Warren G.
Harding's normalcy (1920).

In the ADS Word of the Year voting, when we started in 1990 we focused on new
words, those uncited in any dictionary. But we soon discovered that most of
the truly brand new words had limited circulation. Remember "bushlips" as the
Word of the Year 1990? We do, but hardly anyone ever used it. So for the Word
of the Year we have shifted to words that were newly prominent, adding a categ
ory of "brand new" so those wouldn't entirely be neglected.

In our book, the further back we looked the easier it was to concentrate on
the earliest citation, since popularity is easier to judge in the present day
than to research through the past. (Or just because dictionaries will give
you early citations but not information on popularity.) Of course the
difficulty with that is the likelihood that subsequent research will find
earlier citations. Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro have already done that with
quite a few of the words in _America in So Many Words_. I guess we'll need a
new edition one of these days.

The ultimate question our book tried to answer is, which American words have
been most influential and most characteristic of our country and its
concerns; and when did they exert their influence? Every entry was a judgment
call. In explaining each year's choice, we are frank about the ambiguities.
But anyone else doing such a book would make different picks.

- Allan Metcalf

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