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No Playful Chads to Lighten Up the Year

2001's list of top terms will probably be more on the serious side, such as 'ground zero' and 'anthrax.'

January 02, 2002|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their previous top words list has Sept. 10 written all over it. Most Outrageous was "wall thumping," for rubbing your thigh against a security scanner so you don't have to pull an entry card from a pocket. Runner up for Most Euphemistic was "Supreme Court justice," a slap at the tangled process of deciding the 2000 U.S. presidential election. And, for Word of the Year, there was "chad," along with, presumably, its comic couplings with "swinging," "dimpled" and "pregnant."

Each January since 1990, linguists and other academics of the American Dialect Society have voted on the words or phrases that rock their world, which otherwise is devoted to the study of "Devoiced Obstruents in Pennsylvania Dutchified English" and other such matters.

The choices, in about seven categories, typically reflect a celebration of the English language, its capacity for reinvention, innovation, playfulness. This year, though, the list of winners is expect to characterize a year in which Americans struggled for words that weren't there, in which our expanded lexicon denoted an unfamiliar fear with terms such as "homeland security," "suspicious mail" and "new normalcy."

The society will vote for the top words of 2001 on Friday, at its annual meeting in San Francisco. Nominated words and phrases are not necessarily new ones but those that were used last year in a prominent or distinctive way.

Wayne Glowka, chair of the society's new-words committee, is one of two or three members who traditionally submit nominating lists in advance, though anyone at the group's meeting can throw out suggestions. The top word or phrase for 2001 will be related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, predicted Glowka, an English professor at Georgia College and State University. "The Word of the Year is who we are and what we are in any given year....It comes down to a feeling." Previous Word of the Year winners tend to trigger a defining memory of the times: "Y2K" in 1999; the prefix "e-" in 1998, as in e-commerce; and "millennium bug" in 1997.

For 2001, Glowka's choice is "Let's roll," the phrase used by Todd Beamer before he and other passengers rushed hijackers on the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Beamer's words were a "heroic reaction to an absolutely horrible day," Glowka said, noting that the expression was picked up by President Bush and used as a rallying cry. "When I first heard it, I was stirred."

Among Glowka's other nominations are words that underscore the way in which the country still has not settled on a term for the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon: "9/11," "911," "Sept. 11" and "Terrible Tuesday." Glowka also is proposing the phrase "Sept. 10" as a time in which the U.S. was "oblivious to impending danger."

In the group's online discussions, other members have been kicking around possibilities such as "anthrax," "sleeper cell" and "The terrorists will have won," as in: "If we don't go about our daily business, the terrorists will have won."

Another noted list, yourDictionary.com's Top 10 Words of 2001, ranks "ground zero" as No. 1. "We're trying to reflect what's happening in the language and what's happening in the culture," said Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief executive of the Web portal, which offers more than 1,800 dictionaries online. The site's linguistic experts track the evolution of and innovations in word choice and usage; last year, for instance, it cited "ground zero" on its list of top cliches for its misuse in phrases such as "starting over from ground zero," rather than its original definition as the point at which a nuclear bomb explodes. Now, of course, the words refer to the former site of the World Trade Center.

"Language is a living instrument," said Payack, who is based in Danville, Calif. "It's malleable. It's changeable. When something like Sept. 11 happens, we all have the same vocabulary. That's very unusual. If I said the word 'heroes' to you six months ago, you wouldn't say ... 'guys on an airplane.'"

Other Top 10 Words include "God," which is listed with Allah and Yahweh, for being "in more headlines and on the lips of more politicians than any time in recent memory," and "W," in reference to George W. Bush, "the butt of January's political jokes [who] waxes most presidential in September."

Even yourDictionary.com's list of top colors is an indicator of societal shifts, Payack said. Last year's choices included "periwinkle," "salmon" and "anything 'pearlized,'" or textured. This year: "red," "white," "blue," along with "burka blue," referring to the color of full-body coverings that the Taliban forced women to wear in Afghanistan.

The sobering times notwithstanding, linguists still are tracking the lighter side of the language. Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford University linguist, recently heard the phrase "weapons-grade salsa," a spinoff of the term used by officials to refer to a highly concentrated form of anthrax.

YourDictionary.com's lists don't yet reflect playful words that derive from the flat terms of terrorism, Payack said. By comparison, last year's selections were a cinch. "'Chad'--people loved it. There were a million stories on it, and it was kind of fun. This [year] isn't so much fun."

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