Monday, December 31, 2012

Words of the Year

Legions of learned lexicographers annually nominate candidates for their Words of the Year, and 2012 was no exception.  The Oxford Dictionaries and the Merriam-Webster crowd are the chief perpetrators of this verbal pageantry, and among the past year’s leading contenders are:

Malarkey – This word was used by Vice President Joe Biden to describe GOP candidate Paul Ryan’s foreign policy ideas. It means “nonsense,” akin to baloney, or "insincere talk or writing intended to distract attention from ulterior motives." The origin of malarkey, sometimes spelled without the second “e,” is unknown, although Biden suggested it was Irish-American. It may be from the Irish surname Mullarkey, or, possibly, the Greek word malakia, which means “worthlessness.” The word first showed up in print (as Milarkey) in 1922 in a newspaper cartoon by T. A. Dorgan (“TAD”), and again in another of his cartoons (as Malachy) in 1924.

Meme – This is a trendy word that refers to a concept or a behavior pattern that spreads from person to person within a culture, rather like a contagious disease.  We get a lot of that these days, thanks to the Internet, which has popularized such memes as “Gangnam style” (the most widely viewed video on YouTube).  Other popular memes of 2012 include Mitt Romney’s “binders of women,” flash mobs in public places like train stations and airports, pictures of Hillary Clinton texting, and anything to do with Justin Bieber.  The word meme was first coined in 1976 by Oxford don Richard Dawkins in a book called The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins wanted a word that described the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, so he adapted the Greek mimeme, from which we also get the words mime and mimesis.

Schadenfreude – This word is composed of the German words for "harm" and "joy" and means “pleasure one may feel in the troubles of others.” It was widely used by the media after the 2012 elections—referring to the feelings of guess which party. The word in English dates to 1895.
Touché – Thanks largely to "Survivor" contestant Kat Edorsson, who misused the word to mean "tough luck" before she was voted off the island, this word has gained traction. Its look-ups at were up sevenfold over 2011. From the French toucher  (“to touch”), it is a fencing term that acknowledges being hit, that is touched with the sword, by an opponent.  Figuratively, its use dates to 1904, and it means “your point is well, or wittily, made.”
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou rarely makes any point at all, let alone making it well or wittily.  When nudged into semi-consciousness from his customary stupor, he allowed the following balderdash to spew through his gin-washed lips:

         When Ryan spouted foreign policy
         Joe Biden was a little snarky,
         And said, “Now, listen here, by golly, see,
         Your views are just Malarkey!”
         But Ryan did not counter with “Touché,”
         Instead, he hollered “Bloody moidah!”,
         Allowing Biden, on Election Day,
         To bask in Schadenfreude.
         The moral of this cautionary tale:
         Don’t let your views become extreme,
         And if your words are chosen well, then they’ll
         Become a winning Meme.

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