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The words of 2012

December 18, 2012

by Paul Heacock

As the year winds to a close, it is once again time for the staff and contributors to Cambridge Dictionaries Online and its blog, About Words, to sort through the year gone by and highlight the words and phrases that rose to prominence. In one way or another, all of these strike us as emblematic of 2012.

The new year brought some typical words to the fore, with resolution and prosperous making meteoric jumps in the number of searches for each. But many of our visitors must have had a romantic start to the year, because cuddle also became a very popular word to look up.

The second month of 2012 brought a more sober frame of mind, with words like bailout, hostile, grim and fail all getting huge upticks in searches on CDO.

In April, the phrasal verb give up made a sudden appearance at the top of our most-searched-for list. It was the only top 50 appearance for the term all year, and seems odd coming in springtime. Perhaps the searches were in reference to the financial turmoil, or to the tradition of giving up something for Lent, or to news reports in the US that month showing what people were willing to give up in order to have access to the Internet.

Speaking of the ongoing global financial problems, the word austerity hit number 9 in our search results for May. This was a point when austerity moves in the UK, Greece, throughout the EU and in the US were very much in the news. There was, for a time, even talk of a possible eurogeddon, the complete financial collapse of the eurozone.

Summer was an especially busy time of year, linguistically. In June, the word Jubilee was the second most frequently searched-for item on Cambridge Dictionaries Online, no doubt because of celebrations marking Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. (The word dictionary, a frequent favorite on our site, was number 1.) Also showing a huge increase in searches were related words such as pageant, throne and commemorate.

In July, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, which led to a resurgence of the use of the term god particle to describe this elemental piece of the natural universe. While not new –  the term comes from a 1993 book – it came into new prominence in 2012. Although widely used in the media, scientists apparently dislike the use of this term.

Older words come back to the fore with some frequency, but rarely with as much prominence as omnishambles did. Originally appearing in a 2009 episode of the BBC TV series “The Thick of It” and meaning a complete and utter cock-up or mess, it roared into vogue in 2012 when it developed traction in relation to political events in the UK in that life-imitating-art fashion.  The adjective omnishambolic also made its way into the lexicon.

The Summer Olympics brought joy to many sports fans around the world, and also brought back to life an enduring argument about the use of nouns as verbs. The word podium was heard a lot as a verb during these Olympics, as in “She hopes to podium at this event.”

August is sometimes called the silly season in the news business, and some of that silliness seems to have spilled over into dictionary searches. Probably because of the arrest of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, visitors were searching the term pussy much more often than usual. They also searched for shades of grey, no doubt because of the popular Fifty Shades of Grey books.

September brought pleb to prominence because a British MP was alleged to have used this word in an argument with a policeman.

Autumn in New York is a lovely standard composed by Vernon Duke in 1934. This year, however, it brought a new word, Frankenstorm, to describe the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in the region. Many fear that the term may be needed to describe increasingly disrupted weather patterns around the world.

US presidential elections never fail to provide some sort of lexical innovation. One of this year’s coveted voting groups was variously dubbed waitress moms or Walmart moms. These were the working-class women who it was thought might vote for either candidate.  Also in November, bumble moved up the charts because The Economist called the Taiwanese president a bumbler.

Also worthy of note for making news this year were the terms Big Data, for the collection of massive amounts of information online, especially about consumer behavior; pink slime, a beef product made from offcuts of meat; and the delightful adverb automagically, which means ‘independently, without effort and as if by magic.’

Finally, we have to note an oddity that appeared in our monthly tallies of top searches: the phrase eat your heart out started the year as our 14th most common search term. In the following months it moved up to number 3, then was 6th in March, 9th in April, 30th in May, 4th in June, 8th in July, 4th in August and 31st in September. Then, just as mysteriously, it was gone from the Top 50 in October, November and December.

What are your Words of 2012? Let us know your nominations in the Comments below.

From all of us at Cambridge Dictionaries Online and Cambridge Words, best wishes for 2013.

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4 comments

  1. [...] See on Scoop.it – Metaglossia: The Translation Worldby Paul Heacock As the year winds to a close, it is once again time for the staff and contributors to Cambridge Dictionaries Online and its blog, About Words, to sort through the year gone by and h…See on dictionaryblog.cambridge.org [...]


  2. Concerning. As in ‘It is very concerning that the government plans to cut spending on …’. My intuition is that until recently the word used would have been ‘worrying’ or expressed as ‘I/We are very concerned that …/It is a matter of some concern that …’


  3. [...] Cambridge Dictionaries and Collins Dictionary couldn’t contain themselves and chose 12 words of 2012, including ‘Gangnam Style’, ‘superstorm’ and ‘Frankenstorm’ (both relating to Hurricane Sandy).  Also making appearances in the lists were ‘Big Data’ and the rather lovely ‘automagically’. [...]


  4. [...] my colleague Paul Heacock mentioned in his blog , the word omnishambles was one of the runaway successes of 2012. Coined in 2009 for the political [...]



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