What the Words of the Year Say About Us

From occupy to winning! to Tebowing, our language mirrored our mood

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The words we coalesce around as a society say so much about who we are. The language is a mirror that reflects our collective soul. Right now we are a nation marked by class divisions that have only grown deeper and more entrenched since we realized the great recession was the new normal. There is a deep-seated dread spreading throughout America. There is anger. Many are mad that the opportunities to build careers, make money and join the middle class, opportunities we once took for granted, have slipped away. We see clear enemies who are gorging at the trough of money and being bailed out when they screw up while the masses are doomed to scrounge for work and deal with upside down homes. Just a few years ago, millions of Americans felt the middle class was accessible, but now we see millions scrambling to stop falling down the class ladder. In 2011, American language expanded to recognize our feelings about the new normal, breathing new life into old words or creating new ones that resonate because they speak to how we feel.

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The obvious word of the year, the one that most clearly marked 2011 and spoke to what it was really about, is occupy. In 2011, occupy basically occupied the language, appearing everywhere and, like the leaderless national movement it sprung from, it was malleable and fluid. Occupy was used to speak of the movement meant to attack income inequality and the loss of the hope of class ascension that once marked America. But it was also used as an instant punchline. Those who used it in a mocking way were either belittling those who were battling class inequities or showing cynicism that a movement about that could succeed at all. Or they were just responding to the sudden ubiquity of the word. I used it on Twitter in a string of tweets joking about my kids refusing to get out of their parents bed which I hashtagged #OccupyMommyAndDaddysBed. (What did they want? They wouldn’t say. But I already knew we were too tired to win.)

Occupy took on instant massive linguistic power as a way of each side of the class divide roaring at each other. It’s so visual: when you say occupy you can see exactly what’s going to happen. We’re going to have an old fashioned sit-in, we’re going to take over, we’re going to be committed and we’re going to sit someplace until … who knows? At the same time, there was room for the detractors to tease: what are you going to do beside just sit there? Nothing? Oh. That’s not scary. But the ubiquity of the word occupy confirms that the conversation has been changed and the awareness of inequality and joblessness and people’s fury about those things is being communicated. Interestingly, occupy has, until the Occupy movement, been something of a dirty word in America. It’s been a liberal’s way of characterizing the long term missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in a negative way, shorthand for criticizing our status as world’s policemen and embarrassment over taking over other nations. This year the word occupy was overthrown and, you might say, returned to the people.

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Occupy is not the only piece of language that reveals the anger and frustration over this country’s economy. The 99% and 1% were new, powerful signifiers that came from the Occupy movement and cast the rich as evil and unfair and did so in easily portable language that obliterated the middle class (or rendered them morally neutral.) Casting us as 99% vs 1% is the language of class war. You’re either solution or problem. With us or against us. They’re words that seek to mold a mob mentality, words that encourage attack.

Even the compound neologism humblebrag, which caught fire on Twitter, is part of the frustration with the new normal. Humblebrag is a supposedly humble comment that shows off your wealth or fame or importance. Humblebrag is usually said as a retort to someone who’s said something offensive because it reveals privilege. “Your haircut reminds me of my trip to Italy.” Or “The Watch the Throne concert was awesome! I just texted Jay to say thanks for the great seats!” Or “So thankful to have a maid I can trust.” To which some (or many) would retort: “humblebrag” or “first-world problems.” These are disses that mean: stop complaining about your petty class concerns. Many are suffering in real ways. If you’re fortunate, then keep your head down or risk getting it chopped off!

(MORE: Video: The Buzziest Buzzwords of 2011)

Winning was another of the most used and most interesting words, although one that I suspect will be left behind in 2011 like a pet rock. This was almost like “Let them eat cake!” as it’s a tone deaf rich person’s response to problems. There was an irony in Charlie Sheen’s usage of it: he was setting his career on fire but was too blinded by years of unearned success and bacchanalic debauchery to see it. He was like a drunk raja surrounded by his harem, unable to hear the barbarians at the gate who were coming to kill him. Sheen was an entertaining train wreck but few saw him as he did: as a hero standing up to the man or an indestructible force (with tiger blood, whatever that is.) He was a myopic clown who was in an incredibly enviable position yet talking and drugging himself out of it. The rest of us mocked him by using winning without irony: we used it to signify moments of joy and success instead of as Sheen did, saying it when you thought you were, but in fact weren’t, winning.

The other massive word of year was Tebowing. It’s meaning is quite small, it means merely kneeling in prayer, mimicking iconic Denver Broncos QB Tim Tebow. But there’s a deeper layer. Performing the act of Tebowing meant expressing admiration for Tebow and this year admiration for him was widespread. He was like a folk hero to many, an underdog who succeeded against the odds, an undertalented quarterback who many in the football establishment doubted could succeed in the pros. And yet he did and did so while carrying himself with a goody two-shoes sweetness rarely seen in pro sports. Part of why so many love Tebow is because they see in him a certain class they feel has gone out of sports. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? He’s playing QB in Denver. Tim’s nowhere near the player that Joe was but he’s a nice guy many feel good about rooting for in a world where many other athletes seem self-centered or money grubbing or adulterous. (There’s undoubtedly a racial aspect at play there but that’s another essay.)

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ESPN analysts talked about how bad Tebow was and, instead of attacking them back, he cheerfully thanked them for the motivation. Meanwhile, he went out and found ways to win games in spite of himself, sparking several come-from-behind victories powered by fourth quarter heroics, so many that his season would be too improbable for a Hollywood movie. Tebow was inspiring and the spread of the word Tebowing spoke to a desire to be like him or at least to people liking him. He was like an NFL version of Rudy, but also a Christian who was injecting his principles and faith into pro football. And in many ways Tebow fits into the class divide in the country in an emotional way: Tebow is a 1%er in terms of salary, but in spirit he’s a 99%er.

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