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Grant Barrett's annual words of the year!

January 3, 2012 1:17 p.m.


Grant Barrett, co-host of public radio's A Way With Words, vice president, American Dialect Society.

Related Story: Grant Barrett's Annual Words Of The Year


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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ST. JOHN: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Alison St. John for word-lovers, it's always fun to see what new words or phrases have become part of the public lexicon in the previous year. And grant Barrett, cohost of a way with words, is here to fill us in. He wrote the new list of 2011. Thanks so much for coming in.

BARRETT: My pleasure.

ST. JOHN: Let's start by asking, how do you collect that's words? So much happens in a year. Where do you go to figure out the list of new words?

BARRETT: A lot of reading. Newspapers across the country, new books that have come out, read transcripts of shows, because it's a little faster that happen watching them. I have several RSS feeds, and an immense amount of reading. Listeners often e-mail and say here's a word. Do you know this? And if I don't, I record it, and look it up, and come up with the information

ST. JOHN: If you have a new word you're not hearing on grant's list, and you've got an idea it should be one on that list, you can call us at 1-888-895-5727. So now, what are the criteria for words or phrases that make your list?

BARRETT: They don't have to be brand-new. What they need to be is prominent, like Time magazine's person of the year. Important of the year. Relevant. Indicative of the national discourse. Related to the things we're all thinking and talking about. Related to something important that happened. And it's always in the context of the year. You can't say, well, will this word last? It needs to be important for 2011. This year, I picked from a list of about 340†words. I think we pared it down to 20 or 30.

ST. JOHN: So interesting that you don't watch television.

BARRETT: I do, it's just not very efficient. Transcripts are far faster.

ST. JOHN: Are there other people out there -- dueling lists?

BARRETT: Absolutely. Ben Zinger, who works for My colleagues at the American dialect society, we're holding this week in Portland our 22nd annual word of the year vote, where my list will be part of the nomination list, and then we'll see what comes out of it. Of you never know. I think last year, it was ap.

ST. JOHN: That's appropriate. Upon

BARRETT: This year, the frontrunner looks like it's going to be occupy. It's been a productive word, pervasive, and representative of a certain new spirit, and it also reflects in a way, the Arab Spring movement. People who were unhappy with the way the power was distributed right now, and they want to do something about it.

ST. JOHN: I thought it was interesting how few words there were to do with the web, technology, the whole word, like where ap came from.

BARRETT: There's no shortage of candidates for that. All of my searching is online, it's easy for all my words to have the tinge of online. This is one on the list, cloud music, is one of them. This is your music collection, stored in the cloud, apple and Google both launched cloud this year. But I have a bias against it because I might have a bias for it, does that make sense?

ST. JOHN: Well, you're trying to be objective.

BARRETT: Exactly

ST. JOHN: Nobody can deny this has been a big year for politics

BARRETT: Certainly. The 2011 election campaign started so early, it started, like, 50†years ago, really. But it seems not to have stopped since the year two thousand, right?


BARRETT: All of these revolutions or movements happened in places where there are no air 1s, there are Muslims, and maybe they speak a form of Arabic, it still is a great all-encompassing word that describes the particular part of the word, and the rich history, and how it all came to a head this year, in a variety of places and ways, some very violent, and some very peaceful. You could see these countries and cultures coming up with their own beautiful way to protest. Not only is it a word of 2011, but this is a word for the history books.

ST. JOHN: To go back to occupy, do you know how that word emerged from all the different names this movement could have had?

BARRETT: There is an organization called ad-busters in Canada, which is a counter can culture organization, antimarketing, antilogo, and they have a bit of humor about it. They tend to joke, and they'll do funny ads and videos, and interesting, ironic articles. And I believe it was in July they called this movement occupy, and they encouraged their readers and their community in October to occupy Wall Street. And that was a motivator. And of course, they used occupy in a very interesting way. They avoided the terms occupation and occupiers. And in this way, they avoided the tinge of past movements. So it had its own feel. Also, occupy became what we call in linguistics a combining form. It works so well with other parts of speech. The jokes started immediately, occupy sesame street being my favorite. But you could take occupy and combine it with any place name. There were even occupy new year's eve parties. People are still showing I'm going to go to a place that I think psychologically represents some problems I'm having with the way the world works, and I'm going to tell everyone I should be there, they should join me, and we're all going to talk about it.

ST. JOHN: It's brilliant, it doesn't require you to define what your goals or problem is.

BARRETT: No, you didn't have to do that. And I think that's part of the reason why there was coalescence. This is why a movement did come out of it. You could argue there are many different motivations there, and some are the same, tired players we've been seeing for decades. But we did find sinship. There were people on the scenes that said I didn't know there were this many other people upset about this. And that was part of the reason it was successful.

ST. JOHN: As a word, it helped bring together.

BARRETT: Words passengers on the big bus of ideas. They're cargo for ideas. The ideas go first, and the words come along for the ride.

ST. JOHN: Well, the movement coined another couple of words, one that obviously I know that -- 1 that I didn't, the human megaphone.

BARRETT: You're in this environment, in a public square, in New York City, in order to meet the strict definition of right to assembly, there are all these other rules that are legal, but they say you can't use ampcasion. You can't, for example, run food preparation businesses that require electricity. There's all these other rules. But the ampcasion one is a problem. If you're going to have honest of thousands people in one place and you can't have ampcasion, what are you going to do? I stand in the front as the speaker, I say welcome to the square, or liberty park, and then the crowd repeats it after me, and in that way, everyone in the back can hear it as well. And it's slow. If you've been to a church service where things are repeated at lect, you know it takes many, many times longer to do this. But you do guarantee that everyone hears it, and along with this comesnies hand signals to show that you concept or disagree or want a chance to speak, or a symbol for repeating. And upon woof the terms on my list is twinkling.

ST. JOHN: I didn't know that one.

>> This comes from American sign language. And in order to show applause or appreciation for something that's been said, something that's been signed, you raise your hands up like this, almost like you're being arrested, put your palms outward, and wave your hands. It looks very much like jazz hands. And it's called twinkling. And you'll see this at the linguistic conferences that I go to when someone is giving a paper on some feature of American sign language. Non ASL users, they know this one signal. It's so logical that you should wave your hands and flash them for a job that was well done. Both of them did come from prior movements. What we saw in occupy was a maturation of a series of ideas and a series of behaviors that came together, and you can see this represented in the language. If you've driven down the highway, and you've seen a highway cut, where there's accretion of the century, and you can see each lair of soils and sediment, which is what language looks like. Upon and we can see that represented in the occupy movement

ST. JOHN: 53%er, what's that?

BARRETT: The argument from the right was, and I thought it was done with a good deal of humor, if only the 53% of Americans didn't pay tax did pay tax, we could get rid of some of this troublesome deficit, right? Some people don't pay taxes because they're too poor to, some of them because they're too rich to, and all this other various law-breaking in there.

ST. JOHN: And we've got the buffet tax.

BARRETT: Here's a man who's made a zillion dollars. Is he still the richest man in the world? He's up there, near the to which but yet he's got a common sense about him that Americans like. He lives in the same house he lived in decades ago. Practical people look forward to his annual report because they're written in plain language. He talks like somebody that you want to meet at a party who's not going to bore you. And his advice turns out to be good, because he's had some great investment success. When Warren buffet says I think I should be paying more tax, people go, huh? They listen. So Warren buffet said this. He write an oped for the New York Times and said I did not pay as much tax for most Americans last year in percentage of my income. Let's talk about this. And other people said why didn't you go ahead and do that? And he says, look, I give. I give to charities, organizations that aren't governments.

ST. JOHN: We're talking about words that bubble to the surface in 2011. There's a couple of phrases which aren't really new, but really have had a lot of usage. Awe state measures and debt ceiling.

BARRETT: If you were to follow what happened in Europe with Italy, and Greece, and the other countries, a half-hour summary, and I've heard them hoot BBC and elsewhere, about what happened in 2011, it is riveting. Awe state measures reports this concept that people who are used to living large, and governments that were used to employing large numbers of the population, the civil service being nearly the largest employer, that's all changed in some kitchens in Europe. And they have to put in awe state measures why where they're going to cut the programs, fire people, ah, state measures is about drawing in, and going back to the basics of what you think a government should be spending for

ST. JOHN: And then deathers, the opposite of birthers. Who are they?

BARRETT: These are the people who doubt that ososwas actually killed by Seal Team six. For every fact, there's a conspiracist who doubts it.

ST. JOHN: And we've got the super committee. Which, somehow, that term no longer means the opposite of super.

BARRETT: They weren't that super, were they? These were the guys who were supposed to get-together and resolve the debt ceiling. The two houses of Congress appointed the two different members from the two houses and parties to work this out, and they kicked the can down the road, pushed it away, punted it. We'll talk about it again next year.

ST. JOHN: And another phrase you've got on your list, which is winning, is also in some ways reversing its meaning.

>> Whatever you think about Charley sheen, and his drug habits, and all the things that happened, and him getting let go from the show, he is at least entertaining. And that was his first tweet on his new massively popular twitter account. He thinks of himself as a winner.

ST. JOHN: Now that word has a tongue in cheek sense to it. I want to get to the words you picked for San Diego.


ST. JOHN: What are a couple of the phrases you felt like only people in San Diego would get?

BARRETT: Given the news that Norv Turner is going to be kept on with the San Diego Chargers, one of my item system out of date. But fire Norv was a catch frizz. When you lose that many games in a row, and the fans are going, what? You look for somebody to blame. It's not to say the chargers had the -- were the worst team. They just missed the playoffs. There were a good dozen teams or so, be the colts were worse than the Chargers. And rivers and gates, these two players still have a lot of respect from the fans and in the NFL. So fire Norv was on my list. I've stricken that.

ST. JOHN: Still Norv.

BARRETT: The cat pack tax was a -- cat tax was a funny one. In order to restore some balance as to whether the city or the county was funding certain animal services, there was a proposal that a charge license fee for animals be adopted, and I believe it was councilman DeMaio who called it the cat tax, and send we need to send this idea to the litter box, which it was, essentially, and killed by the City Council.

ST. JOHN: Then we have the Mardi Gras effect.

BARRETT: This goes into what Vlad BARRETT was just talking about. Once the redevelopment agencies got wind of the fact their funding could be shut off. They started spending like mad. It was like the day after lent. They were into the doughnuts, right? They were eating every cookie in the house. They were scooping sugar out of the bowl, and just shovelling it into into their mas spending money right and left. The end was sight in, and it did arrive, and maybe whatever you could of this

ST. JOHN: Turns out they probably were wise to do that.

BARRETT: The self-preservation is a strong instinct. Even if you're a giant bureaucratic organization.

ST. JOHN: In the few seconds we have left, planks.

>> This is when you lie very flat and very stiff, and have someone take your photo and put on on Internet for everyone to be Amused by.

ST. JOHN: Thank you very much.

BARRETT: My pleasure.