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Wordology

2005 WAS A GOOD YEAR for words. Not all of them, of course; like Dodger outfielders or reality-TV stars, some had a better year than others. “Podcast,” for example, was named word of the year by the prestigious Oxford American Dictionary, the lexiconic (that’s a word we just made up) equivalent of the Oscar for best picture, and “integrity” took home the prize for most-looked-up at dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster’s website. The American Dialect Society, meanwhile, will select its word of the year next week at its annual meeting. Alas, the ceremony will not be podcast.

It is probably foolish to read too much into all this, as these are only, well, words. But the words we use do, like, totally define us, if we may lapse into the speech patterns of a teenager for a moment to make our point. Words also come in handy for illustrating larger trends.

Runners-up on the Oxford list include “bird flu,” “persistent vegetative state” (both are actually phrases, but they’re just happy to be nominated) and “Sudoku” (which may also be eligible for the number of the year award). Oxford editors comb the lexisphere (yeah, we made that one up too) in search of new and popular words, which they then consider for inclusion in the latest edition of the dictionary.

Editors at Merriam-Webster simply tabulate the most popular searches at their online dictionary. On the site, if not in Congress, “integrity” has been slowly growing in popularity over the years. Rounding out Merriam-Webster’s list are such news-driven inquiries as “refugee,” “tsunami,” “pandemic” and “insipid” (which spent two months in the Top 50 after Simon Cowell used it on “American Idol.”) Whatever it takes, we say, to improve America’s vocabulary.

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In fact, we’d like to thank all the words for competing this year, all several hundred thousand of them, and to say that they’re all winners in our book. Saying words had a good year, we realize, is a little like saying it was a good year for oxygen, or gravity. (Though it is true they both did very well.) But really, words were superlative this year. Overwhelming. Awesome. Outstanding. You get the idea. Words fail us.


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