The Word of the Year

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The Oxford University Press made public its word of the year in November: it’s “carbon neutral.”

The rise of carbon neutral reflects the growing importance of the green movement in the United States. In a CBS News/New York Times Poll in May 2006, 66% of respondents agreed that global warming is a problem that’s causing a serious impact now. 2006 also saw the launch of a new (and naturally, carbon neutral) magazine about eco-living, Plenty; the actor Leonardo DiCaprio is planning a environmentally-themed reality TV series about an eco-village; and colleges from Maine to Wisconsin are pledging to be carbon neutral within five years. It’s more than a trend, it’s a movement.

Carbon Neutral: Oxford Word of the Year, Oxford University Press, November 13, 2006

Ok, so it’s a phrase, but Erin McKean of the Oxford University Press told me on the phone this afternoon that “carbon neutral” functions like a word. The ideal word of the year is something you recognize, she said, but don’t know (ergo, go out and buy a dictionary).

But the word of the year is actually about more than dictionary sales. It’s a recognition that language is a creation of colloquial usage, and this year colloquial usage unearthed “macaca” and “dwarf planet.” It created quailtard. And we saw a frenzied effort — less colloquial than institutional — to remove some words from circulation: “cut and run” and “civil war.”

What’s your word of the year? What did we learn from our new words? What have you picked up from your kids?

Erin McKean

Editor-in-chief, The New Oxford American Dictionary

Grant Barrett

Editor, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English

Geoffrey Nunberg


Professor, School of Information at UC Berkeley

Jim Fitzmorris

Author and playwright

Professor of Theatre History, Tulane University

Extra Credit Reading

Mark Frauenfelder, New word: quailtard, boingboing, February 17, 2006: “”The term described the farm-raised quail released for the hunters to fire at.”

Scott Morrison, Islamofascism, The New York Times, October 15, 2006: “William Safire favors ”Islamofascism” over the other epithets for terrorists acting in the name of Islam (On Language, Oct. 1). But fascism (Mussolini and Hitler) and totalitarianism (Stalin and Mao) are nothing without a state.”

William Safire, On Language Columns, The New York Times (Select).

Geoff Nunberg, Word of the Year, Fresh Air, December 13, 2006: “It’s a strong field this year, what with contenders like Islamo-fascism, netroots, dwarf planet, buzzkill, and ‘the decider.'”

Grant Barrett, 2006 Word of the Year Nominations, for The American Dialect Society.

American Dialect Society, Words of the Year, 1990-2005, American Dialect Society, December 13, 2005.

Urban Dictionary, Word of the Year, Urban Dictionary: “2004: knob. 2005:noob. 2006: emo.”

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