The words of the decade, the centuryand the millennium

December 17, 1999

Can the British hold their own in writing English in the 21st century? Or will the Americans appropriate the language entirely? The opening skirmish in this war of words is already under way, as lexicographers on both sides of the Atlantic struggle to single out the most influential words of the past 1,000 years.

Every year since 1990, the American Dialect Society has chosen words of the year. Come January, it is jumping at the chance to name words of the decade, century and millennium. Nominations are heard on December 28, in an MLA session; voting takes place at the ADS's meeting in Chicago ten days later. There are perhaps half a million words to choose from. They do not have to be new to an era, but must have emerged as distinctive in that period. Key contenders so far include "science", which entered the language in the 14th century with the meaning "knowledge", the versatile verb "go", and "west", on the grounds that both British empire-builders and American settlers headed in that direction, spreading English as they went.

Even the most chauvinistic American, says Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the society, can hardly count on American English winning the millennium contest. For a start, he says, Shakespeare is clearly the greatest English writer, so one of the thousands of words he uses might well be appropriate. Then there's Metcalf's personal favourite, "freedom" - truly an English word, minted in about AD 800.

When it comes to words of the century, however, the Americans are much more pugnacious. Earlier this year, when Oxford University Press issued 20th Century Words, some US scholars criticised its many "Briticisms". British editor John Ayto, a noted lexicographer, included "groovy", "flower power" and "Clintonomics". But he also tossed in terms like "to handbag", inspired by the tongue-lashing Margaret Thatcher gave her critics, but not so familiar to middle America.

"The words that are important in Britain are fairly different from the words that are important in the US," says Fred Shapiro, a lexicographer and associate librarian at Yale Law School in an email - surely a notable word of the 1990s.

Under B, he notes, Ayto includes bail bandit, ball-tampering, barmy army, beef war, benefit tourism, Big Beat, Black Wednesday, Blairism, Blairista, bless, bobbitt, on the bone, boot sale, Boxgrove man, Bridget Jones and Britpop. "In this stretch of 16 consecutive words, the only ones of any real familiarity to Americans are bobbitt and on the bone," Shapiro points out.

The American Dialect Society has a chance to even the odds at the MLA when Metcalf, of MacMurray College, explores notable words of the 20th century in American English, and his colleague Dennis Baron, of the University of Illinois, tackles words of the millennium. Metcalf, co-author of America in So Many Words, admits that there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of the choices. "The question is which word has had the greatest influence on our way of thinking and our culture," he said. "It is a fast and lively debate, with a lot of good humour because we realise this is a matter of opinion." One of Metcalf's all-time favourite American words is OK, invented in America in 1839. "There's no item in English that is anywhere near as successful as OK," he said. "It characterises the best of present-day American culture."

For this century, he likes "teenager": "So much of 20th-century culture has been influenced by the notion of the teenager, of teenagers and the teens being a separate age, a time that you revel in, that music and movies are made for. My theory is that the end of the communist empire was brought about by rock and roll." TC

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