January 10, 2004

ADS word of the year is metrosexual

The American Dialect Society held a couple of sessions yesterday to nominate and select winners in various made-up lexicographical categories yesterday. The whole list, with some discussion, can be found at the ADS web site (though this link will probably change later).

I want to emphasize that no on should take this too seriously -- it's basically a publicity stunt on the part of the ADS, though it's one that many of the participants clearly enjoy.

I missed the voting, which was yesterday afternoon, because I got into a discussion with an old friend here at the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting. I did go to the ADS word-of-the-year nominations session. I only knew one of the regular participants (Larry Horn, who gave a great talk on "lexical pragmatics" Thursday evening at the LSA), but was made to feel welcome.

One thing that surprised me at the ADS "Word of the Year" nominations session was that very few of the participants had ever heard of the term fisking. I nominated it but there was no uptake. Only one of the 30 or so people in the room indicated any familiarity with the word at all, and that was Grant Barrett, the webmaster of the ADS site. He argued that the word is limited to a small circle of ("like 23") warbloggers, who use it in a self-conscious way intended to spread it, rather than as a natural part of their vocabulary, and that it was unlikely to spread outside that narrow group or even to last as an item of subculture vocabulary. Given that no one else in the room seemed even to have heard of the word, I let it drop.

I checked later, and wrote a note to Grant that read in part:

The term "fisking" gets 33,800 google hits. I checked the first 60 and found 50 different sites. The 20th page (200-210) still has 9 out 10 that are not among the earlier 50. I've sure that things start to repeat more after a while, but I'd be willing to wager the price of a good dinner that there are more than 10,000 google-indexed sites where the word is used.

There's only 1 hit in google's "news" index, which does indicate that there's not much uptake yet outside of the blogosphere.

But when you've got a word in active use by an active subculture of tens of thousands of people -- with an audience of millions -- then I think it's pretty sure to last.

So my own personal suggestion for word of the year is fisking. It provides a name for a new (or at least newly-prominent) form, the interlinear critique. This got started as something people did in email and became commonplace in newsgroups and bulletin boards, but there has never been a name for it in the past.

The core usage of the term among bloggers has been for political criticism from the right, but there is plenty of evidence that it is generalizing politically, and is also being used outside of politics and for non-textual forms of criticism. In a few minutes of searching, I found someone who writes about how "AL FRANKEN DELIVERS a mild fisking to aphorism-happy commencement speakers", someone else who uses the term to describe how "Travis Nelson takes Joe Morgan to task" for a column on baseball, and another case where someone writes

I've had a song called "Astley in the Noose" stuck in my head all day. Yes, it's not just a line in a Pop Will Eat Itself song, it's a not so gentle fisking of Rick Astley.

Metrosexual is somewhat ahead at present, with 57,100 google hits to fisking's current 35,400 (up 1,600 from yesterday!), but we'll see ...

[Update: if we add the 2,770 for fisked and half the 8,910 for to fisk (sampling suggests it should be closer to 80%, but never mind), we get more than 42,000 and rising. On the other hand, we need to add in the 14,900 hits for metrosexuals. Yes, this is foolish, but I'll check back on it from time to time anyhow.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 10, 2004 07:26 AM