'Bailout' Is Webster's 'Word of the Year'
Tuesday, November 25, 2008 3:00 PM
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Everyone seems to want one, but apparently a lot of Americans aren't sure what exactly a "bailout" is.
The word, which shot to prominence amid the financial meltdown, was looked up so often at Merriam-Webster's online dictionary site that the publisher says "bailout" was an easy choice for its 2008 Word of the Year.
The rest of the list is not exactly cheerful. It also includes "trepidation," "precipice" and "turmoil."
"There's something about the national psyche right now that is looking up words that seem to suggest fear and anxiety," said John Morse, Merriam-Webster's president and publisher.
Several well-worn terms from the presidential campaign also made the cut: "maverick," "bipartisan" and, coming in at No. 2, "vet" — to appraise and evaluate, as in vetting a vice presidential pick.
But none topped "bailout," a seemingly simple word that suddenly took on $700 billion worth of importance in September _ and prompted hundreds of thousands of online lookups within just a few weeks.
How big was "bailout," etymologically speaking? While Congress was considering the enormous financial industry rescue package this fall, searches for "bailout" eclipsed perennial puzzlers like "irony" and the bedeviling duo of "affect" and "effect."
So how does Merriam-Webster define "bailout"? As "a rescue from financial distress." But Morse says those who looked it up also seemed to want to know whether it had negative nuances or suggested irresponsibility or blame.
"People seem to have a general understanding of the word 'bailout,' but they seem to want to better understand its application, any connotations it may have and shades of meaning," he said.
The publisher usually picks its Word of the Year by considering the number of lookups and whether certain unusual terms submitted by online users have slipped into everyday discussion.
That's how the whimsical and technology-driven term "W00t" — that's spelled with two zeros, used by online game players to express triumph or happiness — gained the top spot in 2007.
A year earlier, online dictionary users picked "truthiness" as No. 1 after it was coined by Comedy Central political satirist Stephen Colbert.
But this year, Merriam-Webster switched its procedure to consider only the volume of lookups of particular words, noting that "bailout" and others were looked up so frequently that their importance could not be ignored.
Interest in "vet" spiked in June as presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke about the team he had assembled to "vet" possible running mates.
"Socialism" and "rogue" also had many hits — the former as people debated whether economic help to businesses was tantamount to socialism, and the latter as pundits questioned whether Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin hurt John McCain's presidential bid by "going rogue," or defying his campaign's control.
And "misogyny," defined as hatred of women, was looked up in huge numbers on the online dictionary as Hillary Clinton's supporters questioned whether it had derailed her presidential hopes.
Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society — which picked "subprime" as its 2007 word of the year — said he thinks "bailout" was a good choice by Merriam-Webster.
It may even be in the running for the American Dialect Society's 2008 word when it is selected in January, Metcalf said.
"If we were to sift through the words of the past year and pick the most significant, the ones that characterized the year, the ones that remind us what we were thinking about and talking about, then I'd say 'bailout' is a good choice," he said.
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