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Pins And Needles: A Word Is A Word Is A Word

...When the New Oxford American Dictionary announced its top ten words of 2006 I approached the results not with baited breath, or bated breath, but with interest...

In this exhilirating encounter with the English language Gloria MacKay gets to grips with some new words - or, to be terminologically precise, new words and phrases.

For more of Gloria's entertaining columns please click on Pins And Needles in the menu on this page.

I am not a word snob; one word is as good as another. The only caveat is to put the right word in the right place with the right spelling. As for meaning, give me the gist in as few syllables as possible.

When the New Oxford American Dictionary announced its top ten words of 2006 I approached the results not with baited breath, or bated breath, but with interest. This particular dictionary, one I have never used, presents itself as an American dictionary in the Oxford tradition. Oxford, eh? Would I know any of the words?

From bottom to top, in the David Letterman style, this is the list: pregaming, Islamfascism, ghostriding, funner, fishapod, elbow bump, dwarf planet, DRM, CBA and, word number one, carbon neutral.

No, I did not know any of the words (well, one perhaps) because The New Oxford American does not define "word" the way I was taught.

Elbow bump, dwarf planet and carbon neutral are not words, they're phrases, which Wikipedia, the dictionary of the people, defines as a group of words that functions as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence.

Not that there is anything wrong the phrases. Dwarf planet is a new designation for planet-like objects (like the "new" Pluto) which are round and orbit the sun, but have not cleared other objects from their orbits. Elbow bump, a greeting in which two people touch elbows, is recommended by the World Health Organization as an alternative to the handshake, in order to reduce the spread of germs. (The recommendation, itself, however, strikes me as off kilter. Doctors have long advised us to sneeze into a bent arm as a way to reduce the spread of germs. We canít use our elbows both ways at the same time, even if it is a phrase.)

Two of New Oxford's ten best words look to me like initials, too unpronounceable even to sneak in the back door as respectable acronyms. DRM stands for digital rights management, CBA for community-supported agriculture. Nary a vowel between them.

Oxford offers us Islamfascism, a controversial term equating some modern Islamic movements with the early twentieth century European fascist movements as a single word. Ghostriding, the practice of exiting a moving vehicle and dancing either beside it, or on top, while the vehicle is in motion, as another. When called into action my poor little Appleworks Spell Check froze in a pique and Word Count went ballistic.

These are compound words, of course, defined as a combination of two or more words functioning as a single unit of meaning. One might well put a hyphen between them, Google admonishes, citing over-anxious and bull-headed. Nevertheless, with great reservation, Iíll give Oxford their Islamfascism and ghostriding.

So far, only two words of out ten ó funner and fishapod ó are bona fide words, and funner is kid lingo which causes purists to flinch. "We don't want to go to the park, Mom. Running up and down the mall is so funner."

This leaves fishapod, a "humorous" name cites Oxford, for a newly discovered fossil [the Tiktaalik roseae] which has features of both fish and land mammals and, as such, is considered an evolutionary link between the two. I wonít argue their choice, but in some instances I lean more towards Napoleon who said, "A picture is worth a thousand words."

This leaves carbon neutral the New Oxford American Dictionary's winning word of 2006 (keeping in mind a phrase by any other name is still a phrase). This is the process of maintaining a balance between the production and absorption of carbon dioxide emissions to help counteract global warming.

Editor-in-chief Erin McKean says, "The increasing use of the word carbon neutral reflects not just the greening of our culture, but the greening of our language. When you see first graders trying to make their classrooms carbon neutral, you know the word has become mainstream."

It is not a word! My fifth grade teacher would have red penciled Ms. McKean until she bled.

Here is how some bloggers reacted to The New Oxford American Dictionary's top word of 2006.

Carbon neutral is not a word; itís an aspiration.
Carbon neutral is not a word; itís a movement.
Wow! CARBON and NEUTRAL go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Carbon Neutral? Oh, Oxford, you are blindingly intellectual!

My words, exactly.


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