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Dictionary editors honor and expand vocabulary of environmental concern

Hurricane Sandy
CC/Flickr/CasualCapture
Among the Oxford English Dictionary's 2012 words of the year was 'superstorm,' used to describe powerful storms like Hurricane Sandy

For reasons not entirely clear, November is the month when many of the world’s leading dictionaries announce their Word of the Year selections.

Sometimes the honorees are of brand-new coinage, as with omnishambles at the top of Oxford’s list for 2012; sometimes they’re about as old as English itself, as with bluster in the No. 1 spot on dictionary.com.

By recognizing usage that’s especially intensive, or inventive – or both – the selections always have something interesting to say about what’s been most on the mind of English speakers in the year preceding. And this year, words about environment – weather, nature, biology, mining and making electricity — seem unusually well-represented among the winners and also-rans. Or so I thought.

A 'lexigraphically quiet' year

Editors at dictionary.com went with the venerable bluster as their Word of the Year, partly because 2012 had been “lexigraphically quiet” in terms of must-add neologisms and also because

2012 saw the most expensive political campaigns and some of the most extreme weather events in human history, from floods in Australia to cyclones in China to Hurricane Sandy and many others. Man-made disasters spiraled as the European Central Bank continued to hem and haw over bailouts and austerity, and Greeks went to the polls after years of uncertainty. Even after many spilled words, the stability of the Euro fuels debate around the world. So what one word conveys these dominant trends of 2012? Bluster.

 

Over at Oxford University Press, a lexicographer told The Guardian, editors chose omnishambles as their top new word of 2012 because of its popularity and “linguistic productivity” in describing any "a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterised by a string of blunders and miscalculations."

Britons who learned the word from a BBC television comedy, “The Thick of It,” have applied it to all manner of blunder and scandal in the UK and generously coined a variation for export to the U.S. market: Romneyshambles.

(Speaking of the U.S. market, it should be noted that Oxford often chooses two top words for the year, one for the British-speaking world and one for Americans. For 2012, our disappointingly old, unlovely and not so useful honoree is GIF  as a verb, meaning “to make a GIF image” in one of the more elderly computer imaging formats available. Thanks awfully, OUP.)

'Superstorm' enters the book

Also on Oxford’s list of notable new words in 2012 – for both sides of the Atlantic, it would appear – is the inevitable but actually useful superstorm, as in Sandy. Here’s betting the other dictionaries follow that lead and adopt this term for “a poweful and destructive storm that affects a very large area.”

Here’s hoping, too, that they reject “Frankenstorm” despite its apparent popularity among online commenters offering nominations of their own. Ditto Marchuary, apparently used in Britain to describe “a January or February so warm, it resembles March.” Serious changes in climate and weather deserve serious terminology.

The Cambridge Dictionaries won’t choose their word of the year until December, but this month put up a series of new-word updates that contained many environment-related entries, including these:

bio-mining for a supposedly more earth-friendly means of mineral extraction, using microorganisms to draw metals out of rock

extreme energy for the extraction of energy from the Earth’s core, using such techniques as shale-gas fracking and tar-sands mining

re-mode for selection of an alternative form of transporation, as in, “Ms Greening declared: ‘Across the whole department, we’re trying to re-route, re-mode, re-time and just generally reduce our travel.’ “

motif, borrowed from music and art and repurposed to mean a particular genetic snippet that is passed on from one generation to the next

microhydro for small generating stations that using flowing river water to produce electricity in quantities under 100 kilowatts.

microbiome – my personal favorite – for the complex ecosystem of “more than one trillion micorganisms” within the human body, including the vast population of viruses that scientists have begun to call the virome

Borrowing from music

Earlier additions at Cambridge have included promession, for a process of freeze-drying human bodies as an earth-friendlier alternative to embalming and cremation, and a pair of music-derived terms that I find just perfect to carry on a late-autumn walk:

biophony, for the chorus of sound from birds and dogs and other living creatures, which I suppose could include the listener’s own footfalls and breath, as part of

geophony, for blustery wind and spattering rain, for creaking branches and scattering leaves, and all the other melodies of our little blue sphere.

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