Reflecting what’s on the minds of Americans, “bailout” and “socialism” have beaten “maverick” in a US dictionary word-of-the-year competition.
Bailout – “a rescue from financial distress” – was declared the winner of Merriam-Webster’s word-of-the-year competition after it was judged the most looked-up word on the dictionary’s website, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski said.
“Bail out as a phrasal verb refers to parachuting from an aircraft or, in our second sense, to abandoning a harmful or difficult situation, both of which point to distress,” said Sokolowski.
Second on the list was “vet”, as in to evaluate a candidate’s suitability and qualifications for a position.
And in third place, just in front of “maverick” – a word used during the long presidential campaign to describe Republican candidate John McCain – was the word “socialism”.
“In America, ‘socialism’ is a dirty word,” said Sokolowski.
Lookups – itself an accepted word dating back to 1936, according to Merriam-Webster – of “socialism” began to climb in September, as the economic woes of US companies began to mount and the race for the presidency between McCain and his rival Barack Obama neared its close.
‘What’s so wrong with Canada?’
Not only was there heated discussion of bailouts – economic socialism and the US government taking control of ailing companies – but the word was also used in a disparaging sense by the Republicans to try to turn voters against Obama.
“It’s a funny word to have on the list but it’s clear to me that Americans don’t know what socialism is,” said Sokolowski.
“It’s been demonized in our culture, and I think a lot of people just wanted to check what’s so wrong with, I don’t know, New Zealand, France, Denmark, Canada, all of which are proud socialist entities,” said Sokolowski.
People who looked up “maverick” would have learned that it has its origins in American pioneer Samuel Maverick, who did not brand his calves.
In the non-livestock sense, a maverick is an independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.
Other words linked to US politics, which made it onto the list were bipartisan (involving two parties), misogyny (hatred of women) and rogue (scoundrel).
“Misogyny was high throughout the year, mostly because of Hillary Clinton,” said Sokolowski.
Commentators used the word to refer to the treatment Clinton got from media during the primaries, and from Democratic party leaders who chose Obama as the party’s presidential candidate.
They also referred to misogyny when they analysed the likelihood that voters would not elect a woman president, Sokolowski said.
A certain anxiety
“Rogue” got a lot of hits after it was used about Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin at the end of the campaign.
“She was ‘going rogue’, not listening to her advisers,” Sokolowski said.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary gets 125 million individual page views each month, or roughly 10 lookups per second.
“Knowing what words people look up gives a certain window into what people are thinking about, and this list does betray a certain anxiety in the culture,” said Sokolowski.
Five words on the list were linked to the global financial meltdown and five to the US presidential election.
The other words in the top 10 – trepidation (fear) at number six, precipice (a very hazardous situation) right behind it, and turmoil (extreme agitation) at number 10 – showed that Americans are deeply worried by the financial crisis, as did the word that finished just off the list.
“Tumultuous” – which means marked by violent upheaval and was often used to describe the roller-coaster ride on financial markets in recent months – came in at number 11. – AFP