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The words of 2011

December 27, 2011

by Paul Heacock

As the year draws to an end, we make lists: Best Movies of the Year, Favorite Sports Moments and Key Political Events appear in national and international publications; Top Sales Reps or Most-Viewed Intranet Stories show up on corporate websites and in newsletters; many people even send out letters to friends and family detailing their personal “top events” of the year. Lexicographers, too, like to sift through the year’s work, and usually proclaim a Word of the Year. But we felt that a single Word of the Year was too limited.

Our choice was to list the English words our staff and contributors felt were most emblematic of the year now coming to a close. The words could be serious or frivolous, items we thought would last and those we thought might quickly disappear, single words or acronyms or phrases – the only requirement was that each one had to in some way be representative of 2011.

What follows is our list of the Words of 2011. Let us know what words you would nominate for Words of 2011 in the Comments below.

Arab Spring and the ninety-nine percent – it’s surprising to have two items that are so different yet so similar. The specifics that gave rise to mostly peaceful uprisings in various parts of the Arab world have almost nothing to do with those behind the Occupy movement in the US and its efforts to draw attention to income (and power) inequality. But both movements are powered by citizens who felt disenfranchised by the existing political systems, and who decided that this was the year when a change had to come.

The Eurozone – the 17 nations in Europe that share a currency – and the euro – the currency that ties it together – are having an impact from Buenos Aires to Beijing. The importance of these words clearly underscores how global the global economy and the global English language have become. And late this year, the Robin Hood Tax – a tiny tax that would be paid by banks and other financial institutions – became a popular term and a popular idea for fixing that global economy.

The pull toward the global also produces a pull toward the regional and local. Two new acronyms, representing two newly important groupings of countries, have come into the news in recent months: CIVETS, Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa seen as a trading block (and representing the new BRIC, Brazil, Russia, India and China); and GIIPS, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, the distressed member states of the Eurozone. GIIPS is pronounced, for reasons of political correctness, with a hard “G,” not as the softer “gyps,” for fear of offending the Romany, and was changed from PIIGS, presumably also to avoid offence.

Events of possibly less importance than revolution and economic meltdown still managed to make their way into the news. Some favorite terms from less-crucial events include pretzel hat, a hat looking very much like a pretzel which was worn by Princess Beatrice at the British royal wedding in April (a hat that now has its own Facebook page); Sheening, the act of behaving outrageously badly in the manner of Charlie Sheen and a term that was popularized by Trey Stone and Matt Parker when they used it to describe going to the Academy Awards in drag; and foam pie, a plate full of shaving cream that gained prominence as a tool of political commentary when it was used to attack Rupert Murdoch as he gave testimony before a parliamentary committee in July.

Sheening caused a trend on Twitter, and we would be remiss if we chose only one word that gained popularity because of online activity. Others that we liked were tweeps, a combination of “Twitter” and “peeps” (itself short for “people”) used to address or refer to Twitter-users; OMAG, “oh my actual god,” used as an expression of stronger surprise, horror, etc., than the emotion expressed by OMG; and liveblog, to write a blog about something as it is happening. We suspect that as the world becomes more and more connected and instantaneous communication becomes the norm, it won’t be necessary to use the term liveblog; the default will be to write about things as they happen. The Arab Spring movement also made the word Twivolution – the use of Twitter in political conflicts –  popular again.

 And finally, we have bunga bunga. It’s a silly euphemism for sex and sexual entertainment, and is associated with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who reportedly held bunga-bunga parties at his villa. The parties were said to feature naked women, and presumably sex, and the news media in Italy, and in the rest of the world, couldn’t resist using this ridiculous word. Neither could we.

This post includes contributions from Colin McIntosh, Wendalyn Nichols, Stella O’Shea, Hugh Rawson, Kate Woodford, and Helen Waterhouse. From all of us at Cambridge Dictionaries Online and Cambridge Words, best wishes for 2012.

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8 comments

  1. It may be my age or my ethnic heritage, but I find “liveblog” a rather clumsy replacement for the more pungent “kibitz.” This German word has made its way to English through both Yiddish and “Pennsylvania Dutch” (more accurately, Pennsylvania German or Pennsylvania Schwabian), A kibitzer is someone who offers unsolicited and often unwelcome advice on an ongoing event, especially a card game. For instance, the bridge column in the Cincinnati Enquirer, a newspaper published in a city with a substantial Jewish community and many residents of German ancestry, was long called “The Kibitzer.”


  2. More on “kibitz”: The word is a Yiddish modification of the German “kiebitzen,” meaning to look over a card player’s shoulder, in turn from “kiebitz,” the name of a bird, the lapwing, a member of the plover family, also known as the “pewit,” from its cry. The lapwing has become a symbol forwardness because its young are so active so soon after hatching that people like to think the newborn birds run around with their heads still in their shells.This belief is of some century’s standing. In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Horatio puts down the elegant, effeminate courtier Osric, saying “This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.” “Kibitz” was popularied in the United States in the 1920s, especially by a compedy, “The Kibitzer: (1929), which helped make a star of the actor who co-authored it, Emmanuel Goldenberg, aka Edward G. Robinson. Enough kibitzing on this liveblog!


  3. [...] The words of 2011 is from Cambridge Dictionaries. [...]


  4. [...] The words of 2011 is from Cambridge Dictionaries. [...]


  5. Columbia??? I guess it’s Colombia…


  6. You are absolutely right, it is Colombia, the country, and not Columbia, the university in New York. Corrected now.


  7. First I thought on Canadian British Columbia. Our previous experience filters our understanding of reality…


  8. [...] What would Gandhi have made of glitterbombing? This form of protest – a curious mixture of the high-spirited and the serious, the comic and the aggressive – consists of throwing handfuls of glitter at whoever has caused the protester’s anger. Glitterbombing has been aimed mostly at those accused of homophobia, and most of the recent US Republican presidential candidates have now been glitterbombed at one time or another. The tactic has also been used by Occupy Wall Street protesters. [...]



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