On the Trail of New Words, from “App” to “Nom”

At its annual meeting last January, the American Dialect Society named a new chair of its New Words Committee: Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and until recently the On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine. As part of his duties, Zimmer will take the helm of "Among the New Words," a long-running department in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the ADS published by Duke University Press. Zimmer will also oversee the selection of the ADS Word of the Year, an announcement that attracts extensive media attention. Here Zimmer reflects on his new role.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Among the New Words": Dwight L. Bolinger brought the feature to the pages of American Speech in 1941, after previously writing a new-word column called "The Living Language" for the Los Angeles-based magazine Words. It is a great honor to be carrying on this distinguished legacy, though I wonder what Bolinger would make of the linguistic landscape of the early 21st century, when innovative lexical formations spread like wildfire over Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

As the digital age hastens the rapid circulation of new words and phrases, neologism-watchers can sometimes find themselves playing a more active role in the success or failure of language forms. The American Dialect Society's Word of the Year proceedings are closely watched by the media, and the ensuing coverage can occasionally help to solidify a word's place in the lexicon — even if ADS members might prefer to see themselves as neutral linguistic observers. One notable case where the WOTY choice represented something of a "thumb on the scale" of language came at the ADS annual meeting in Albuquerque in January 2006 (my first). After much debate, truthiness was selected as the 2005 Word of the Year, even though its parodic use by faux-pundit Stephen Colbert was still quite fresh at the time. As I observed in an On Language column celebrating the fifth anniversary of truthiness, the ADS unwittingly played a major role in catapulting the Colbertism into the public consciousness.

Even when the Word of the Year is not so brand-new, the selection can have significant repercussions. That is certainly the case with the 2010 winner, app, an abbreviated form of "(computer) application." Though it can be dated back to 1985, app has been given a new lease on life lately. As I said in the press release accompanying the announcement, "App has been around for ages, but with millions of dollars of marketing muscle behind the slogan 'There’s an app for that,' plus the arrival of 'app stores' for a wide spectrum of operating systems for phones and computers, app really exploded in the last 12 months."

Much to my surprise, just three days after the announcement, my quote from the press release found its way into a brief filed by Microsoft, contesting Apple's trademark claim for the phrase "app store." The selection of app as Word of the Year, along with my comment on the prevalence of "app stores" for mobile devices, served as fodder for Microsoft in its argument that the term "app store" is generic and not distinctive enough for Apple to maintain a trademark. (The fact that I quoted Apple's popular slogan, "There's an app for that," went unremarked by Microsoft's lawyers.)

And just last week, the WOTY choice was in the news again, since Apple sued Amazon for opening up an "Appstore" to sell apps for Google's Android devices. An article on CNN.com about the "app store" feud quoted me along with fellow ADS members Wayne Glowka (who edited "Among the New Words" from 1997 to 2008) and Bill Kretzschmar (who was responsible for nominating app from the floor at our January meeting). I pondered further on the trademark squabble in my Word Routes column for the Visual Thesaurus, as well as in a piece for The New York Times Week in Review entitled "The Great Language Land Grab."

In my first installment of "Among the New Words" (to appear in the June issue of American Speech) I will be surveying the various nominees for 2010 Word of the Year, including subcategories such as Most Euphemistic, Most Likely to Succeed, and Most Outrageous. In the main category, app beat out another three-letter word: nom, an onomatopoetic form suggesting pleasurable eating, used as an interjection, noun or verb. Nom traveled from Sesame Street's Cookie Monster (whose voracious noises are often represented as "om nom nom nom") to the online images known as "lolcats," and on to wider usage thanks in part to Twitter.

I suspect Bolinger would have appreciated the earthy joys of nom. After all, in a 1940 article in American Speech, Bolinger observed how imitative expressions like humph, ahem, pish, and tsk often get turned into "real words" by "pronouncing them as spelled rather than articulating the sounds they were intended to represent." And among the first batch of neologisms he provided for "Among the New Words" the following year was none other than burp — like nom, a kind of digestive onomatopoeia that can be pressed into service as a noun or verb. Plus ça change!


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