< In So Many Words


Friday, December 16, 2005

BOB GARFIELD: Have you ever encountered a lifehack? Do you know what it means to be squicked? These were all runners-up for the coveted distinction of the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2005 Word of the Year. Those and a bunch of other neologisms you've never heard of will be included in the next online update of the dictionary due out early next year. Erin McKean is the New Oxford American editor-in-chief, and she joins me now to explain the difference between an IDP and an IED. Erin, welcome to OTM.

ERIN McKEAN:: [LAUGHS] Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Erin, the New Oxford American Word of the Year 2005, I'm happy to report, is one very near and dear to the soul of this radio program. Drumroll, please. The word is -

ERIN McKEAN:: Podcast. I'm really happy to think that maybe in a very meta way, people are hearing that "podcast" is the word of the year on a podcast. That would be really cool, wouldn't it?

BOB GARFIELD: Tell me, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, what's a podcast and how it wound up as Word of the Year.

ERIN McKEAN:: We define a podcast as a digital recording of a radio broadcast or a similar program made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player. I really wanted to put "podcast" into the print edition that came out earlier this year, but we just didn't have enough evidence for it. And then about oh, three weeks after our print deadline, the word just blew up. It was everywhere. And so when it came time to choose the Word of the Year, I was a staunch advocate for "podcast." And now everybody and their uncle has a podcast.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, thank you, fine, sure. Devalue what we do.


BOB GARFIELD: So has technology always been a driving force behind bringing new words into the lexicon?

ERIN McKEAN:: It's hard to say whether technology is really the driving force, or whether it's some kind of observer paradox in that it's very easy for us to find technology words. Because where do people discuss technology? They do it on the Internet. And the Internet's very easy to search. Words that don't get talked about on the Internet are harder to find. Now, that doesn't mean we aren't looking for them. It just means that we have a lot of evidence from the technology arena and less evidence about, say, terms of cat breeding or surfer talk or stuff like that.

BOB GARFIELD: Erin, have you ever been squicked by something? And what question have I just asked, because I actually have no idea?

ERIN McKEAN:: [LAUGHS] You have just asked whether I have been immediately revolted by something.

BOB GARFIELD: Where does this come from? It sounds kind of like surfer parlance.

ERIN McKEAN:: I actually cannot say on the radio where this word came from, because somebody sent me a link to a Usenet newsgroup called alt.tasteless, which should give you an idea of why I can't talk about the etymology of this word on the radio. But, you know, Google is out there and it will be a friend to you if you want to find out.

BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, I'd like to tell you that I just don't even - [OVERTALK]


BOB GARFIELD: - want to know. But - [OVERTALK]

ERIN McKEAN:: You don't want to know -


ERIN McKEAN:: - believe me!

BOB GARFIELD: So as soon as we're done with this, I'm going to - [BOTH AT ONCE]


BOB GARFIELD: In journalism circles, a hack is a pejorative term, but what about a lifehack? Where does that come from?

ERIN McKEAN:: Computer geeks think of hacks as generally good things. They make stuff work in a better way, possibly not the way the original manufacturers intended, whereas non-computer people see the word "hacker" and they have very negative connotations. So a lifehack is any kind of little trick that you use to make something work more efficiently or to do something more effectively. For instance, a very simple lifehack is to pick one place for your keys and never put them anywhere other than that.

BOB GARFIELD: It's a solution to a persistent problem. [OVERTALK]

ERIN McKEAN:: It's kind of like a very geeky kind of "Hints from Heloise."

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Okay. [LAUGHS] Erin, after World War II, the acronym "DP" for "displaced persons" was very popular and quickly became, as many descriptives do, offensive to those who had emigrated here to escape persecution because it became stigmatized. What is an IDP and when did that shorthand creep into the language?

ERIN McKEAN:: IDP is actually pretty old. We have citations from the thirties. But it came to prominence this past year when there was that big controversy over whether you could tell people who had been affected by Hurricane Katrina, whether you could call them evacuees or refugees. And both of those terms became stigmatized. And so IDP, which is much more bureaucratic, was used instead.

BOB GARFIELD: And it stands for?

ERIN McKEAN:: Internally displaced person.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, we promised an explanation of the difference between IDP and IED. Erin, what's IED?

ERIN McKEAN:: An improvised explosive device. IED is a word that really owes its place on this list to the war in Iraq.

BOB GARFIELD: One more question. If I were to throw an iPod in Times Square, am I likely to hit someone who knows what in the world "reggaeton" is?

ERIN McKEAN:: I'm pretty sure you would be able, depending on your aim. It's a Latin-American dance music which is getting a lot of play here, and it combines elements of reggae with hip-hop and rap. It's pretty catchy, I have to say.

BOB GARFIELD: Thank you very much for joining us.

ERIN McKEAN:: Oh, you're very welcome. Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Erin McKean is the editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary where, in its 2006 updated version online, you'll find all the words we just talked about and, no doubt, quite a few more. [REGGAETON MUSIC UP AND UNDER]