Saturday, January 22, 2011

I Thought "App" Meant Appetizer!

Linguists select word of the year: It's app
Saturday, January 08, 2011
By Sean D. Hamill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The word above all others in 2010? App.

That's according to the American Dialect Society, which held its annual meeting at the Wyndham Grand in Pittsburgh last weekend and chose "app" over the word "nom" as its Word of the Year for 2010.

App, which means "an application program for a phone or computer or other electronic device," was proposed not because it is particularly new or groundbreaking, but because it came into its own and crossed into the wider culture in 2010.

"My 84-year-old mother uses the word, and she doesn't even know how to text," said Bill Kretzschmar, the University of Georgia English professor who nominated the word "app" during a spirited voting session.

"It is the most democratic word. It's not just big companies making apps anymore, it's small companies and individuals," Dr. Kretzschmar said. "Even the weatherman I watch on television in Atlanta made an app to get weather information this year. It's everywhere."

The word was chosen Friday night by about 150 linguists after two days of debate that began with a list of 33 words. They narrowed it down to nine winners in various categories (most euphemistic and election terms, for example) before choosing the winner in a free-for-all final round that allowed adding words not previously voted on -- including app.

It beat out the word "nom," which was defined as an "onomatopoetic form connoting eating, esp. pleasurably."

Some who argued in favor of "nom" said it was "a vote for happiness," and that "app" was simply too old a word.

But in the argument that carried the day, Ed Cormany, a doctoral student in linguistics at Cornell University, stopped tweeting on his laptop long enough to rise from his seat to argue that, yes, it may seem that "app" has been around for a long time, but "this year people realized they needed an app for any technology."

The arguments sometimes became a little heated, particularly over some of the politically based words in early voting -- which didn't bother voters.

"I understand. It always gets a little heated," Mr. Cormany said. "We love our words here."

The goal in choosing a Word of the Year, is to find a word or expression that in some way "best characterizes the year ... [and] most reflects the ideas, events, and themes which have occupied the English-speaking world, especially North America," according to the dialect society's website.

Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary's North American unit, and the dialect society's president-elect, concedes that selecting the WOTY, as it's known, "is a fairly light-hearted effort."

"It isn't peer-reviewed, but we do put thought into it," said Mr. Sheidlower, who tweeted about the WOTY selection Thursday and Friday. "If you look through the list of previous years, you'll find, on the whole, they said something about the year."

For example, last year's selection for 2009 was "tweet"; 2008's choice was "subprime"; and 2007 was "bailout."

There are several other prominent organizations that choose their own Word of the Year, such as Merriam-Webster (which already chose "austerity" as its word in 2010) and the New Oxford American Dictionary (which chose "refudiate").

While Merriam-Webster chooses its word based on the increase in the number of times the definition of a particular word was searched for on its website -- "austerity" searches increased 80 percent from 2009 to 2010 -- the New Oxford American Dictionary chooses its word as a consensus among its lexicographers.

Another organization, The Global Language Monitor -- which chose "spillcam" for its 2010 word -- since 1999 has been using an algorithm to search online articles, websites, blogs and social media in English-speaking countries to monitor relevant words.

But the dialect society has been choosing its WOTY, as it's known among its voting members, the longest, since 1990 (when it chose the forgettable "bushlips" as its first WOTY).

"It's the granddaddy," said Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, which has been choosing its word since 2003.

But the broad array of wordsmiths from the academic and publishing world who are WOTY voting members of the dialect society -- including members of related organizations like the Linguistic Society of America, which organized the conference -- gives the dialect society's choice quite a bit of cachet, even from sponsors of competing WOTYs.

Before the final vote, Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford University Press, said in a phone interview from her home in New York that she pored over the online list of the dialect society's nominated words, and she was positively giddy about what would take place Friday night.

"This is like the Oscars for me," said Ms. Lindberg, whose organization has been choosing its word since 2005.

Told that "app" was the choice later Friday, Ms. Lindberg said it might not have been her choice for 2010 -- though "nom" was in the top 10 of possibilities for her organization -- but she thought it had merit.

"I agree with their argument for app, because when it went in our dictionary at first, it only went in as 'short for application,' " she said. "But now it's time to go in and give it a full definition, because it really has become the full word people use."

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