"Google" Wins Top Word of Nameless Decade

GENERIC dictionary top words of the decad CBS/AP

Chances are, in the past year, you read a blog about a bank bailout, a balloon boy and a beer summit.

And you may have been inundated with tweets about mini-Madoffs, Climategate and Octomom.

Indeed, 2009, like every other year, spawned a vocabulary torn from the headlines: "inaugurate," "H1N1" and "rogue" all caused gridlock in Web traffic. Depending on which dictionary you trust, either "admonish" (Merriam-Webster) or "unfriend" (New Oxford American) was anointed 2009's word of the year.

But what was the top word of the past decade?

"Google" (the verb) takes the prize, according to the American Dialect Society, which made the declaration Friday evening in Baltimore.

"It's hard to imagine life before we were Googling," American Dialect Society executive councilmember Ben Zimmer tells CBSNews.com.

In the end, "Google" beat out five formidable finalists for Word of the Decade: "9/11," "green," "blog," "text" and "war on terror." (The ADS deemed "tweet" top word for 2009.)

Zimmer notes that way back in 2002 (when "weapons of mass destruction" was crowned Word of the Year), "Google" was voted most useful and "blog" most likely to succeed.

While many of the decade's most popular words were products of the Web, most were spawned by politics and media - and sometimes both.

Take, for example, the recently ingrained terms "red states" and "blue states." The practice of color coding political parties dates back more than a century, but only in the past decade did the color red come to symbolize Republican and blue Democrat, says Zimmer, who's day job is executive producer of Visual Thesaurus.

Beginning with the 1976 presidential election, TV networks assigned the color blue to the incumbent party (at the time, the GOP) and red to the challenger. That model continued until 2008, when the Democrats (at the time, the challenger) were supposed to be switched to red. However, thanks to the likes of Tim Russert and other TV analysts who had color-coded maps in the 2000 and 2004 elections, the blue/red distinction had become so synonymous with Democrat/Republican, that the colors stuck.

"It just became unavoidable," Zimmer says. "That coincidence of how the map was colored had a big linguistic effect on how we divide the country."

The intersection of politics and news gave birth to other notable words. The disputed election of George W. Bush, for instance, made "chad" the American Dialect Society's word of the year in 2000.

Not surprisingly, much of the lingering lexicon from the Bush era revolves around war - "axis of evil," "9/11," "WMD," "ground zero" and "IED" are all ingrained in our vocabulary.

As for Barack Obama's imprint on language, history will tell. For all of Mr. Obama's eloquence, the president has yet to produce any catch phrases, buzz words or memorable expressions.

The one exception?

"Wee'd wee'd up," says Zimmer, who nominated the term, along with 31 others, as 2009's word of the year. ("There is something about August going into September where everybody in Washington gets all wee-weed up," the president said of his agitated detractors last summer.)

Politics also gave a boost to the suffix "-er" in the last decade. For example: "flip-flopper" (coined during the 2004 election), "birther" (someone who doubts Mr. Obama was born in the U.S.), and "deather" (one who subscribes to Sarah Palin's "death panel" claim).

While Democrats clung to sterile terms like "public option," Zimmer says Republicans were far more effective at leveraging the "-er" suffix to their advantage - even if it was in an alarmist or conspiratorial fashion.

While "-er" ruled the ends of words, "un-" was the decade's dominant prefix. Sites like Facebook forced the word into our cyber consciousness as a quick, often cold, way of undoing an action - or an online relationship. "Unfriend," "unfollow" and "unfavorite" are examples.

Zimmer says "un-" has supplanted "de-" as the preeminent reversative prefix. Similar to the Twitter-spawned interjection "fail," the negative prefix serves as a metaphor for the decade.

"It extends into social relations," he says. "It has big social ramifications because the whole concept of friendship is changing."

Of course, for every shiny new word that became a permanent dictionary addition, there was one that faded into obscurity. Called "stunt words" by lexicographers, some words just don't stand the test of time. These fleeting words include "muggle" (a word popularized in 2000 from Harry Potter, meaning a mundane, unimaginative person) and "plutoed" (2006's word meaning to be demoted or devalued, like the erstwhile planet). Maybe the most forgettable word of the year in American Dialect Society history: 1990's "bushlips."

Which brings up a final linguistic quandary: what do we call the first decade of this century? Even now, there is no consensus. The aughts? The naughties? The zeroes? The oh's? The double oh's? As Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker points out, the de facto choice - the aughts - is actually a corruption of the word "naught," meaning nothing or zero.

While the "aughts" is uninspiring, the "naughties" has more sex appeal. In fact, at the dawn of the decade, there was already a grassroots campaign in support of the "naughties." Ten years later, the name seems apt. After all, in a decade marked by "axis of evil," "mini-Madoffs" and "sexting," naughtiness prevailed.


Some Words That Shaped the 00's:

Here is a list of some notable words of the decade, according to the American Dialect Society. The ADS's annual Word of the Year vote includes several sub-categories - most outrageous, most useful, most likely to succeed, least likely to succeed, most euphemistic, etc. The first words listed were crowned Word of the Year.

2000:
Chad; Courtesy call; Civil union; Nader traitor

2001:
9/11; Shuicide bomber; Ground zero; Misunderestimate

2002:
WMD; Google (verb); Blog; Amber alert; Regime change

2003:
Metrosexual; Embed; SARS; Pre-emptive self defense

2004:
Red state, blue state, purple state; Flip-flopper; Phish; krunked

2005:
Truthiness; Katrina; Podcast; Sudoku

2006:
Plutoed; Macaca; YouTube; Lactard; waterboarding

2007:
Subprime; Facebook; Green- (prefix); Truther; Toe tapper

2008:
Bailout; Barack Obama; Change; maverick; Shovel ready; TWD (texting while driving); Bromance; Terrorist fist jab

2009:
Tweet; -er (suffix); Fail; Public option; H1N1; Death panel; Sexting
By Stephen Smith
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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