We're approaching the end of the year, a time when fanatical lexiphiles can discuss, argue and otherwise ruminate over the connection between words and the larger culture as dictionaries and other word mavens declare their word or words of the year.
Two such announcements were made last week from dictionaries using decidedly different criteria. First, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared its winner, which it chooses from new words not already included in its pages. The choice: "unfriend," which as anyone who uses Facebook well knows, means "to remove someone as a 'friend'" on that or other social networking sites. Other words noted by Oxford reflected political controversies of the past year: "birther," "death panel," "teabagger." They also noted the large number of coinages with the prefix "Obama" (such as "Obamanomics" or "Obamamama") and words associated with Twitter ("tweets," "tweetup," "twittermob").
By contrast, Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year dates back to at least the 14th century: "admonish". Merriam bases its choice on website traffic at its online dictionary so the word can be new or old. Representative Joe Wilson and his "You lie!" moment in the sun are evidently the source of interest in this word that means "to express warning or disapproval in a gentle, earnest or solicitous manner." Runners-up included "inaugurate," "pandemic" "emaciated" (Michael Jackson) and "rogue" (you-know-who).
One item on Merriam's list last year appeared on Oxford's this year: "zombie bank." Obviously, interest in the economy and the brain-eating undead -- and possible connections between the two -- continues unabated.