Merriam-Webster Announces 'Word of the Year' for 2009

By: BOB SALSBERG When the U.S. House admonished Rep. Joe Wilson for shouting "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during a health care speech to Congress, it not only lit up talk show lines, but also sent many people scurrying to the Internet in search of a definition.

Admonish, a verb dating to the 14th century meaning "to express warning or disapproval in a gentle, earnest, or solicitous manner," generated enough curiosity to crown it Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year for 2009.

It beat out several other finalists that emerged from what the dictionary publisher's editor at large, Peter Sokolowski, called the "intersection of news and vocabulary." Runners-up announced Thursday included inaugurate, pandemic, furlough and rogue ? the latter tied to Sarah Palin and the sole carryover from the 2008 list.

Virtually all the words were associated with a news event or coverage and resulted in a prolonged spike of look-ups on the dictionary offered online for free by Merriam-Webster, based in Springfield, Mass.

"Words that make up this list are words that jumped and stayed up there," Sokolowski said. "Even if the word was no longer on the front page of the newspaper, it was still something that people were blogging about or reading about online."

"Admonish" shot to the top in part because it was used at several stages of the story ? originally to describe the reaction to Wilson's outburst, then to the editorial reaction, and finally to the official House resolution admonishing the South Carolina Republican.

Dictionary users may have been seeking to distinguish shades of meaning from synonyms such as "scold" or "rebuke," Sokolowski said. Those terms suggest a harsher tone, while "admonish" suggests a decidedly more genteel response.

Another word on Merriam-Webster's 2009 Top 10 list, "emaciated," generated a flurry of interest after it was used to describe the condition of Michael Jackson's body after the entertainer's death in June. It was the most looked-up word of the summer, Sokolowski said.

Only one of the year's top words had no clear peg to current events. It was "nugatory," an adjective meaning "of little or no consequence." Sokolowski said that while it was a favorite word of his, he remains puzzled as to why it created a buzz of sudden dictionary interest.

A search of Associated Press news archives found no reference to "nugatory" in any recent story.

The Wall Street financial crisis gave rise to "bailout," the 2008 Word of the Year. In the two previous years, Merriam-Webster used online polls or surveys, producing "w00t" (an exclamation used by online gamers) in 2007 and "truthiness" (a term coined by political satirist Stephen Colbert) in 2006.

Other dictionary makers and groups also announce Words of the Year, using different methodology. The New Oxford American Dictionary chose "unfriend," the act of removing someone as a friend on Facebook or other social networking site.

Oxford uses a committee of lexicographers and other experts to select a word that is not currently in the dictionary but will be added. Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, selects among existing entries based on Web site traffic.

"It gives a certain amount of insight into the preoccupations of the past year," said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., and executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, who compared the selection of a Word of the Year to Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

The society plans to name its Word of the Year, along with a Word of the Decade, in January, Metcalf said.

The word "rogue" made Merriam-Webster's 2008 list after Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, was said to have "gone rogue" from the John McCain campaign. It resurfaced this year when the former Alaska governor prepared to release her book, titled "Going Rogue."

The sense in which the word was used to describe Palin does not, in fact, correspond to any of the five definitions for the noun rogue in the Merriam-Webster collegiate dictionary, which range from a "dishonest or worthless person" to a "horse inclined to shirk or misbehave."

However, the definition for the adjective form of rogue does appear to fit Palin, right down to the elephant that's a symbol of the GOP: "resembling or suggesting a rogue elephant especially in being isolated, aberrant, dangerous, or uncontrollable."


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