< Word of the Year

Transcript

Friday, November 30, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
While some languages are dying rapid deaths even as we speak, others, like our own, are adding words all the time, a challenge for any lexicographer tasked with monitoring the words we speak or write or invent.

Each year, the New Oxford American Dictionary chooses a single Word of the Year - and a list of runners-up - all candidates for future inclusion in their next edition. Ben Zimmer, editor at Oxford University Press, joins me now to discuss a few you may already be using but won't yet find in the reference books. Ben, welcome to On the Media.
BEN ZIMMER:
Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:
I want to start with your choices for Word of the Year because for many neologisms the etymologies, or at least the original coiners, are unknown. This one's different. We know a lot about the way this particular word was developed, and so I'm going to hand it over to you. Rrrrrrrr [DRUMLIKE SOUND]
BEN ZIMMER:
The Word of the Year is -
BOB GARFIELD:
That was the drum roll.
BEN ZIMMER:
Yes. The Word of the Year is "locavore." Locavore means someone who endeavors to eat only locally-produced foods. And, as you were saying, it's a word that we know exactly when and where it was coined. In 2005, there was a group of four women in San Francisco who challenged Bay Area residents to eat only food that was grown in a 100-mile radius, and they called themselves the locavores.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, when I saw the word, I immediately understood, yeah, got loca - vore - got it - locally-grown produce. Does anyone actually use it?
BEN ZIMMER:
Well, it's being used quite a lot by the local food movement, either locavore, or there's another variant form that's often used - localvore, with an extra L in the middle. And at the moment, those two forms are battling it out a little bit. But the original form and currently the more popular form is locavore.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, one of your runners-up rhymes with locavore, more or less, and it is mumblecore, which I'm sure hasn't really become mainstream yet but has been propagated largely by journalists.
BEN ZIMMER:
Well, mumblecore is a name that was given to an independent film movement in the U.S. which has low-budget production, mostly non-professional actors with dialogue that's mostly improvised.

It became popularized, actually, at the South by Southwest Film Festival when a director mentioned this word, and then the media ran with it. It started appearing in The New York Times and Village Voice, talking about mumblecore, this new American film movement.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, what would it take for “mumblecore” or “locavore” to actually find its way into the dictionary when the next edition comes out?
BEN ZIMMER:
Well, we would need to see these words being used more widely, also not so self-consciously, so not just talking about the word.
BOB GARFIELD:
Before we get to the next runner-up, I'm going to play this piece of tape.
[CLIP]
MAN:
I didn't do anything! Don't tase me, bro! Don't tase me. I didn't do anything! Ow! Ow! Ow!
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
That was from the Florida incident where a university student was stunned with a taser and the word that came from his mouth, "Don't tase me, bro." I've heard that formulation before. Why is it just now being recognized by your editors?
BEN ZIMMER:
Well, this is actually not a new word. There's actually a 1988 Houston Chronicle newspaper article in which a police sergeant says, “Well, the prisoner was getting rowdy and so we had to tase him.” So clearly, it's been used in law enforcement circles and elsewhere for quite a while.

But this year, thanks in large part to YouTube, the "Don't tase me, bro" incident was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, and then it became a catch phrase that started showing up on bumper stickers and tee shirts and so forth.

And so, even though this isn't a new word, it's certainly a newly-prominent word in 2007.
BOB GARFIELD:
The next coinage, previvor.
BEN ZIMMER:
Previvor is a word that is used to refer to a person who hasn't been diagnosed with cancer but has survived a genetic predisposition for cancer or may have precancerous cells. So someone who doesn't have full-fledged cancer but could possibly develop it becomes known as a previvor amongst this community.
BOB GARFIELD:
I want to ask you one final thing. It seems that nowadays no subject, and not even etymology, is immune from partisan politics, and there have been charges from those on the political right who have noticed that last year your word of the year was "carbon neutral," which is vaguely tree-hugging, and this year's is "locavore," also environmentally-minded, that Oxford American Dictionary has a environmental activist bias; you are a front organization -
BEN ZIMMER:
[LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD:
- for the eco lobby. How do you plead?
BEN ZIMMER:
We're simply observers, and what we've been observing is that the environmental movement or the green movement has been having a tremendous impact on the English language and new vocabulary that develops.

And so, we're not trying to promote or advocate a particular agenda, but we're noticing what is significant in terms of new additions to the language. And clearly, the rise in environmental awareness is having a big effect, and we're seeing that in many of the words that are entering English now.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay, Ben. Well listen, I'm going to go grab something to “vore,” but in the meantime, thanks very much.
BEN ZIMMER:
Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:
Ben Zimmer is editor of American Dictionaries for the Oxford University Press, where the word of the year is "locavore."