Word of the Year

On Jan. 9, the American Dialect Society, an assemblage of academic and amateur wordsmiths, will convene in San Francisco and announce 2008’s Word of the Year.

“Subprime” was the society’s winner for 2007, and we have a hunch the new champ will come from the economic realm too -- with a nominee from the presidential campaign finishing a close second. The public’s early favorites are “bailout” and “change,” but spinoffs on Barack Obama’s last name and “staycation” seem popular among the experts. Our money is on “bailout.” Pun intended.

Adding to several of the society’s nominations, we’ve compiled our own list of hackneyed rhetoric we hope never to hear in 2009:

From Wall Street to Main Street. With fists pounding on podiums, many a candidate last year used this phrase to demand that Washington shift its ministrations from fat cats in the financial industry to struggling small-business owners and their employees. The populist line hit the right note as markets seized up and the abstraction of banking distress became a reality for millions of Americans. But by the time the phrase was peppering President-elect Obama’s comments about his economic team and the next stimulus package, we were desperate to visit new metaphorical neighborhoods.

Bailout. Whenever they rolled out a new, multibillion-dollar financial aid package for a company or industry deemed too big to fail, Bush administration officials referred to the effort in United Nations-esque phrases, such as “rescue” or “relief program.” But the media took a one-size-fits-all approach with “bailout.” The same went for talk radio hosts, comedians -- and the public at large. You know a word has reached cliche status when a friend asks to borrow a few bucks for lunch and refers to it as a bailout. (Just as overused but more colorful: credit crunch, economic downturn, mortgage meltdown.)

Staycation. This portmanteau word apparently emerged in the spring, and soon news outlets were documenting the supposed trend of stay-put vacations. By late summer, however, the staycation rage had been debunkedby analysts. We hope the word will be too.

Czar. First there was a drug czar. Then, when Washington created a $700-billion fund to keep the financial system from collapsing, the Treasury Department named a bailout czar. Soon thereafter, the possibility of a car czar arose. Now Obama has appointed energy and health czars. A technology czar may be in our future too. Seemingly every big initiative from government these days prompts talk of a czar. And to think Russia has gotten by without one for 90 years.

Recessionista. The hard-times version of the fashionista, but still more chic than the frugalista. All of them are out of style.

Getting a haircut. This bit of financial industry jargon popped up again last month when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi equated the losses faced by auto industry bondholders with a barbershop trim. According to a Dialect Society linguist, the phrase, meaning to receive a lower financial return, dates to the 1950s. If we hear it again, we may tear out our hair.

No Child . . . President Bush’s much-debated, often-maligned No Child Left Behind Act has generated much bad jargon. No Child Left Untested is among the worst. (Wisconsin’s state school superintendent seems to have been the first to publicly use the phrase soon after the law’s creation in 2001.) No Bureaucrat Left Behind is close behind.

Blagojevich. It’s a sign of personal triumph or travesty when your name becomes an overused verb. This one definitely falls into the latter category. Be sure not to Blagojevich your career.

Pivot. The presidential campaign periodically pivoted. The economy too. The word probably deserves to survive into 2009, but a brief hiatus may be in order.

Game-changer. Part of a long, unfortunate history of trivializing politics with the vocabulary of sports (see also: horse race, veepstakes). According to a search engine trend tracker, this phrase hit its peak in early March, as Hillary Rodham Clinton campaigned furiously and won the Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas. As it turned out, those weren’t the slam-dunks she needed.

Change. When voters chose Barack Obama over John McCain in November, they weren’t just electing the next president. They were choosing a change agent on a path to change, or more precisely, to the change we need. Though we don’t deny that this country welcomes change, typically on a four- to eight-year cycle, the word and all its variations are now passe. It’s time for an adjustment.

Phelpsian. After winning eight gold medals and setting four individual world records at the Summer Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps became an adjective, along the lines of “Herculean.” We can wait until 2012 to hear it again.

Value add. With employers cutting payrolls and scores of middle managers joining the unemployment lines, it’s not surprising that some of the fuzzy dicta of motivational speakers have crept into the public lexicon. Don’t think of what you can accomplish for a company or what skills you might bring to a project. Ask yourself, “What’s my value add?” Because, like it or not, that’s probably what the next hiring manager you talk to will ask.

Drill down. When the executive summary is just too light on detail, you can dig into the full report. You can scrutinize the data or pore over the charts. But please, do not “drill down.” If that’s not enough to dissuade you from using that phrase, bear this in mind: Drill Down, a promising 2-year-old racehorse, was euthanized at Santa Anita in September.