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Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2011: ‘squeezed middle’

You’d think that choosing the standout word of the year would be a contentious affair. So many possibilities, you’d guess, and so many linguistic loves, hates, and indifferences to deal with amongst those who debate it.

The truth is that, normally, choosing the word of the year is a slam dunk. Take ‘bling’, the obvious choice for 2000, or ‘axis of evil’, the most insistent of terms in 2002. In years such as those, it seemed, discussion of each candidate soon led to a single conclusion.

Not this time. The choice of 2011 could easily have been not one but several words of the year, (or, more accurately, lexical items, for phrases are on the shortlist too. Hardly a sexy title, of course). Although in the end ‘squeezed middle’ took it by a whisker, there were many words that have so embedded themselves in the lexicon of 2011 that each could have qualified for the final choice.

The year of our discontent?

It is not a jolly set. If there was no obvious winner, there was a very clear prevailing mood. The majority of candidates on our list were so serious. Frivolity leapt out because it characterized so few of the choices, and was all the more welcome because of it – even if you don’t have  a personal penchant for ‘bunga bunga’ or ‘sodcasting’*.

In a year like this, it is hardly surprising that the tone is a sombre one. Financial hardship and protest on an unprecedented scale have scored our language deeply (and no doubt many others too). ‘Arab Spring’ is a clear example of a label born out of necessity when complicated events required a pithy description. Its linguistic success can be measured by the numerous ways in which it has been played upon, with ‘Syria’s long winter’ simply the latest spin-off from the original.

Occupy: a rally against capitalism

Most striking of all is that so many of the prominent words this year are not new – they are terms with a long past, but a new resonance. The very first meaning of ‘occupy’ in English was, following the Norman Conquest, ‘to take possession of; to seize’. Today’s exhortation of ‘Occupy’ adds to this past with its direct and imperative challenge to rally against capitalism. Part of its power must lie in its working as both the medium and the message.

If ‘capitalist’ once belonged firmly to the 20th century, it joins other terms that have regained currency in the 21st century, whose language has been marked from the outset by an emphasis upon new social labels. For example, ‘chav’ (2004’s Word of the Year), and its regional equivalents ‘charver’, ‘ned’, ‘spide’, and ‘skanger’, has become part of a tribal vocabulary which suggests very strongly that society is polarizing itself into ‘us and them’. Interestingly, ‘squeezed middle’, Ed Miliband’s term for those seen as bearing the brunt of government tax burdens whilst having the least with which to relieve it, operates slightly differently. It is a label that those affected are opting into rather than having directed against them, and perhaps therein lies its strength. The speed with which it has taken root, and the likelihood of its endurance while anxieties deepen, made it a good candidate for Word of the Year.

Looting, rioting, and phone hacking: nothing new under the sun

But a done deal it wasn’t.  For me one of the most perplexing outcomes of 2011, from the standpoint of English, is that we have been so unforthcoming with new terms for near-apocalyptic events. The summer riots produced no clear new term for those who were more intent on looting than protesting, although we gained a rare glimpse into their own vocabulary, borrowed heavily from the US: ‘feds’ ‘five-ohs’, and ‘po-pos’ were the terms of the moment for the police. Nor did the ground-shaking events that brought down the News of the World introduce a new coinage for ‘phone hacking’ – a term that was simply too transparent, we felt, to justify rising to the top of our list. (‘Pinging’, on the other hand, was a late runner.)

It is hard to imagine that English speakers are losing their inventive edge. Perhaps this year, more than most, the familiarity of the words of the past has brought with it a reassurance that some things, at least, can be relied upon.

 

* ‘sodcasting’: an informal term for the practice of playing music through the loudspeaker of a mobile phone while in a public place

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