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The Words That Defined 2012

Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show "A Way With Words," leafs through a dictionary in this undated photo.
Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show "A Way With Words," leafs through a dictionary in this undated photo.
Words That Defined 2012
The Words That Defined 2012
GUESTGrant Barrett, lexicographer and co-host of the public radio program, “A Way with Words.”

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 is the man to fill us in! He wrote the New York Times list of 2012 words, and he's here to make sure we're up to speed. Thanks for joining us! BARRETT: My pleasure, as always. ST. JOHN: If you would like to submit your ideas of new words for 2012, our number is 1-888-895-5727. Grant, how do you go about collecting the new words? Read blog, obviously you listen to the news? BARRETT: Yes and yes and yes! Lots of reading! [ LAUGHTER ] BARRETT: It mainly comes down to reading the press. I read the local press, the state press, the national press. I have at this point a network of people who send me stuff they find from the whole English-speaking world. And this is something that I've done for a living for years. ST. JOHN: Did you have a number? How many did you collect this year? More than previous years? BARRETT: Well, it could be thousands if I cared to. I don't put as much effort into it as I used to. But this year I started with a solid list of about 70 words just because you cut the bar at some point. 70 words that you might have heard of, that might have bubbled up into your consciousness. ST. JOHN: It's amazing how many new words bubble up! BARRETT: It's crazy. ST. JOHN: And these are not necessarily words that are added to the dictionary. BARRETT: No, they need more endurance. This is one of those momentary things where we just look at this as a way to look at what happened over the period of the previous 12 months. ST. JOHN: What would you say is the sphere that generated the most new words if are your list? BARRETT: Can you imagine? Politics! [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: What a surprise! BARRETT: Four years ago, I thought we'd really done it. That was a year when we had so much political language. This year, it was incredible how much came out of it! And some of it was real, and some of it was manufactureded. And by manufactured I mean one political perspective or another meant oh, we're going to make fun of this person for a thing they said, a gaff they made. So there's a little bit of that. But a lot of really interesting language happened this year! ST. JOHN: We mentioned the Etch A Sketch moments. Tell us about that. BARRETT: If you remember what happened, it was a Romney aide on TV said at one point, well, are the nice thing about a campaign is that if you feel like you've made a misstep, you can just shake the Etch A Sketch and start over. And some people said oh, well, this just shows that Romney doesn't have a firm footing in any belief. MAUREEN ST. JOHN: It makes it almost impossible to use an Etch A Sketch again without thinking of Romney. [ LAUGHTER ] BARRETT: Yeah, and a lot of these word, there's a little unfairness there. Of the truth is, that is exactly what happens in a political campaign. If you are not succeeding, you start over, you start new messaging and put out new ideas. This idea is written through the American history. You do and can start over. ST. JOHN: Did you try to find equal time? Did you try to find as many words that related to President Obama for example? BARRETT: Mostly it was closing the flood gates. You've got to shut the door. These are people coming into your home. These words just come up, like, okay, had enough, boys! ST. JOHN: Give us some of the ideas of words or terms that came up in relation to the Obama campaign. BARRETT: Well, ObamaLoney. It was this generic catch-all where they were just making fun of Obama for being well-spoken, which is really interesting. This idea that some people love the fact that he's fairly well spoken. And other people say, well, he's just longwinded. ST. JOHN: Okay. On the other hand we had Romneysia. BARRETT: That was a good moment. We have this first political debate, Obama tanks. He did not perform. And then the next day, a couple days later, he's giving this speech, and he throws this new bit in, and he just talks about Romneysia is what Romney has because he keeps changing his mind and beliefs and positions compared to what he was when he was the governor of Massachusetts and so forth, and he delivers this immortal line where he says well, here's the good new. Of Romneysia is covered because Obamacare covers preexisting conditions. ST. JOHN: Whoever came up with that phrase! BARRETT: You wonder how long they were sitting on that. And it was just the thing that they needed to change the mood. ST. JOHN: Yeah. Whereas Romney had a few missteps, the percentage 47% now means something that we had the 1% and the 99% last year. BARRETT: Yeah, the 47%, this is the number of people that Romney said in a private video to big donors that would never vote for him because mainly what they wanted from the government was handouts, gifts, they wanted to take but not do the work needed to earn whatever, theyp they were taking. ST. JOHN: It's sort of funny that 53% hasn't become an equal term. BARRETT: Yeah, when we were talking about 1% and 99%, there was all this differentiating of the 2 percentages. ST. JOHN: And then we had the binders full of women. BARRETT: No matter your perspective, if you go back and look at what happened, the governor of Massachusetts is a busy man. In order to get candidates for various position, he always is going to ask his staff for names. But the way it came out made it sound like he didn't know any professional women and had to have other people suggest them to him, like he was alienated from the female half of the species and didn't know. But any business executive does that. They go to their team and say tell me who I should hire. ST. JOHN: It made for some great Halloween costumes, I think. [ LAUGHTER ] BARRETT: It was the costume of the year! Binders full of women! ST. JOHN: Let's move away from politics here and one thing oh, my goodness, it seems like every second word in the newscast these day, a fiscal cliff! It's just become part of the lexicon. BARRETT: Right. And this is a shorthand way of talking about these tax cuts and expenses that will change in January if the Congress and the president don't come to an agreement. I know I'm shorthanding a complicated issue here. But there's a lot of pushback from the public who think this term misrepresents what's happening there. Of it's not a cliff at at all. It's just another political issue made to seem bigger because of the word cliff, and we're all going to go off into the ocean! ST. JOHN: I guess we'll find out what happens to us all in relation to that hopefully sooner rather than later. BARRETT: I'll see you in the soup line. [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: Let's look at weather. There's been some interesting weather with climate change. Frankenstorm. That was a great new word. BARRETT: And the superstorm. This is all about the big storm that hit the east coast of the United States, crazy, crazy. There were people who think it wasn't going to come, then it finally came. Power was out, people out of their home, flooding in places that haven't seen flooding in decades or even a century. So lots of language came up about that. ST. JOHN: And then SOPO. BARRETT: I'm writing for the New York Times, this list that we're talking about here is going to publish on Sunday. So I always put a little extra New York spin on it. And as a former New Yorker, I was there 16 years, I pay a little more attention. SOPO means south of power, and this is a word coined on the same standards and system as SOHO, South of Houston. ST. JOHN: And NPZ? BARRETT: No power zone. There was this beautiful cover on New York magazine that shows a dark tip to southern Manhattan, and everything else is lit up like business as usual. ST. JOHN: Let's see. Now science and technology, did that yield very much? We talked about fracking earlier. BARRETT: I've been tracking that for quite sometime. And it's interesting that it should just percolate in the last 18 months or so to the surface as it becomes apparent that forcing high-pressure water through oil-bearing shale can have health consequences. ST. JOHN: Is that in the dictionary? Is that an accepted term? BARRETT: Yeah, yeah. Fracking is a contraction of fracturing. ST. JOHN: So that's more one that is in the dictionary but we've become more familiar with it? BARRETT: That's right. My requirement is never that it be brand-new. You can't really know that a word is going to last until it's had a bit of time in the world, but that it be really significant to the national discourse for the particular year. ST. JOHN: Are there dueling lists of words? BARRETT: Oh, yeah! It's like a mini-industry now. At some point, you just get tired of the new word parade. But here I am with mine! ST. JOHN: We respect yours. And thank you for giving us a preview of your New York Times list. Of one of the most fun was Gangnam Style! We should have pulled a little piece of music. I know it involves hips. BARRETT: You got to -- I don't know, you've got a bridal in your hands and you're galloping a little bit? I don't know exactly! [ LAUGHTER ] ST. JOHN: What made that so popular? BARRETT: It's one of the best pop songs we've heard in a long time. The video was fun, well-produced. The guy who does the video, he is super charming. PSY. Fun in interviews. Pop, pop is supposed to be fun. It was actually fun. So that's all it took, really want ST. JOHN: We need some more fun in this day and age. Nomaphobia. BARRETT: Do you have your phone, Alison. Nomaphobia is fear that you don't have your phone. No more phone phobia. [ LAUGHTER ] BARRETT: Now it's like you forgot your heart, and your blood's not going to pump if you don't want have your phone. ST. JOHN: What about swag? To me, that kind of means something that you've -- something you've got in a bag. BARRETT: Yeah, you go to Comi-Con you get a swag bag. Of it's loaded with free books and little figures. ST. JOHN: But it's on your list? BARRETT: Well, it changed this year. There have been a couple songs where swag refers to the way that you carry yourself. It's a shortening of swagger, which you walk like you're a man of power and influence. And it's almost always about men, almost always about young men. So you walk like the ladies want you, and that you're really cool, and you're loaded down with money, and you act like you're good-looking, even if none of these things are truly true! MAUREEN ST. JOHN: And unwind yewlaxin. BARRETT: That is one that I just like. 30 rock is about to end seven years of putting out one of the funniest shows on television. ST. JOHN: Seven years! BARRETT: Yeah, tina Fay is fantastic. I just threw the word on there. It means to chillax, or relax, to unwind. It's some goofy word their writers coined for one of their episodes. MAUREEN ST. JOHN: And YOLO. BARRETT: YOLO! I give speeches, and I talk about slang in San Diego schools, and I collect slang from the schools. That came up the most. It stands for you only live once. ST. JOHN: I like that! BARRETT: It's what you say when you're about to do or say something dumb. And the best response to it is YOYO, you on your own! ST. JOHN: Oh, I love that. Thanks so much for joining us.

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 2012 certainly did its part in introducing a slew of new words and terminology, thanks in large part to the presidential election, as well as Hurricane Sandy (and other natural phenomenon), social media and pop culture.

Grant Barrett, lexicographer and co-host of public radio's "A Way with Words," shares some of his top picks.


He said political terms like "47 percent" "ObamaLoney" and "Etch A Sketch" came from the presidential campaign.

Then there's "fiscal cliff," "fracking" and "superstorm" to round out the current events list.

Barrett also mentioned "Nomophobia," which is fear that you've lost your phone; and "YOLO," or "You Only Live Once."

The full list will appear in The New York Times on Sunday, December 23.

Here are a few other lists of the words that helped to define 2012:


Merriam-Webster rounds up the most looked-up words in 2012.

The Atlantic shares its A-to-Z guide on the year's "worst words".

The Boston Globe weighs in on 2012's new words.

Corrected: April 17, 2024 at 6:22 PM PDT
Claire Trageser contributed to this report.