The Words of 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Obama speech word cloud Word cloud of Pres. Obama's speech to Congress on jobs on September 8, 2011 (Created at

Wordsmith Ben Zimmer talks about the year in words—from "occupy" to "supercommittee" to "bunga bunga" to "tiger mother." He'll also look at some of the phrases, like "leading from behind" and "win the future" to tell us what the national vocabulary reveals about 2011. Ben Zimmer writes a biweekly language column for the Boston Globe and is the former "On Language" columnist for The New York Times Magazine. He's also executive producer of and

Let us know what your words of the year are! Leave a comment below!


Ben Zimmer

Comments [12]

Peter Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Fascinated to hear that lexicography is a business separate from academic pursuit: live and loin. Delighted to hear the glimmer of discussion of connotation vs. denotation in the challenge of translation. Occupy as a noun (usually in the plural) is largely due to the fact that those whom it represents have so many competing means of self definition that they are deliberately trying to defeat stereotyping. Hoovervilles were similarly named as a result of a paucity of agreement as to why the unemployed congregated in public parks, built tents and protested their poverty, causing a violent eviction. Building on the earlier precedent, we could call them Bushtowns, but the media being controlled today by the Bushbergs, Murdochians and Bachmaniacs among the editorial staffs apparently put the quash on this. The use of Occupy as a noun is weak in English, and seems partially to connote derision of the occupiers to marginalize their protest.

Dec. 13 2011 04:17 PM
lisa from LI

to Amy Heller of NJ, see The Word Made Flesh (

Dec. 13 2011 03:43 PM
Yvonne from Park Slope, Brooklyn

My comment is not about neologisms but is, instead, in response to the comment about whether the structure of a language influences how we think and perceive.

When I was in college and a language major, I was fascinated by the difference in saying, as we do, "I am drowning" as opposed to "the water is killing me" as in one of the native American languages (I do not remember which; I am 64.) but I became convinced that this difference is related to different views as to our place in nature and our relationship to it as well as to the attitudes that have led to global warming, etc.

Dec. 13 2011 12:50 PM
Lee from Bronxville

My ex-husband was a high school english teacher and was often bemoaning the decline of the english language. He did not like new uses of words, for instance taking a noun and using it as a verb. My question is: do you feel that language is a flexible , changing thing or that we should all still be speaking the 'king's english?'

Dec. 13 2011 12:39 PM
ellen from NYC

If he'd invented Twitter, we could call him

Dec. 13 2011 12:37 PM
David from West Hempstead

Hashtag like punctuation and humor has been common among people with cursory familiarity with programming language since forever.

Dec. 13 2011 12:34 PM
Mariah from Avon, nj

Have you seen the star trek next generation episode titled "darmok"? It introduces a culture whose language is based on metaphor. Any comments on it?

Dec. 13 2011 12:30 PM
Petrushka from Manhattan

I'm personally obsessed with how the "#" or hashtag has been integrated into our lexicon. I find them humorous when used at the end of a sentence to punctuate the idea. I guess we should say, "Thanks, Twitter?"

Dec. 13 2011 12:28 PM
Amy Heller from NJ

Ben's brother Carl just published a book SCIENCE INK of science-related tattoos. Any chance Ben will do a book of language tats?

Dec. 13 2011 12:27 PM
Amy from Manhattan

"Occupy" is also being used for non-physical things now. For example, 1 of the groups that were involved in the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service & building the sukkah at Zuccotti Park (or Sukkot-i Park?) is called OccupyJudaism.

Dec. 13 2011 12:23 PM
Richard from New York

How do you perceive that "occupy" is being used differently?

Dec. 13 2011 12:17 PM
Turner from Ridgewood

One word I heard over and over again this year was "vetted".

Dec. 13 2011 12:10 PM

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