Today Dictionary.com (www.dictionary.com), the preferred online and mobile dictionary for students of all ages, announced it has chosen “Tergiversate” for its 2011 Word of the Year. Tergiversate means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.” Dictionary.com selected a difficult word for a difficult year, and in so doing decided to buck a trend in how Words of the Year are often chosen. Rather than focusing on a term in the popular vocabulary, or a new word coined by a celebrity or politician, the company decided to follow its mission of word discovery and seek a perfect candidate that will expand people’s knowledge.
There are essentially two ways to pick a “word of the year.” One common approach is to select from words whose common usage reflects some quality of the year past. Expect to see “occupy,” “winning,” etc., on many selections this December. Another way involves actually using the dictionary. Is there a word that captures the character of 2011, regardless of its popularity or ubiquity?
In late October, we asked our Facebook fans which method of selection they preferred. Almost 7 out of the 10 of them said it should be a word that aptly defines the spirit of 2011, even if the choice is obscure. We like to listen to our ardent supporters.
In the same manner that millions of people come to Dictionary.com in order to find the precise word they need, we spelunked through our corpus to find that perfect fit for 2011. And so we chose tergiversate, a rare word that means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate.” The stock market, politicians and even public opinion polls have tergiversated all year long. Tergiversate is derived from the Latin word “vertere,” to turn. It shares a root with the words “verse” and “versus.” (Can’t figure out how to pronounce it? Visit dictionary.com for the audio pronunciation.) One could say that events in Tahrir Square continue to tergiversate as sharply now as they did in the spring.
Here are a few examples of how the word has turned up in the press. On August 20th, 2011, in The Times of London, Oliver Kamm said, “The tergiversations of stock markets are often puzzling from the outside. They’re no less puzzling from within.” In September, the Baltimore Sun picked tergiversation as its word of the week. Last year in May of 2010, James Surowecki used the word to describe German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s economic choices: “Political risk is hard to manage because so much comes down to the personal choices of policymakers, whether prime ministers or heads of central banks. And those choices aren’t always going to be economically rational—witness Merkel’s recent tergiversations.”
To choose a word like “occupy,” “Arab Spring,” or “austerity” would be an evaluation of events from our narrow vantage. We do not yet know what the impact of these events will be on a historical scale, whether there will be any long-term change as a result of the Occupy movement or whether democracy has finally come to the Middle East.
Another way to honor the year in a single word would be to pick a neologism. This year a few words were coined. The New York Times described the “pinking” of America, or the spread of breast cancer awareness through the emblem the color pink. Football hero Tim Tebow unknowingly started a craze: tebowing. To tebow is to kneel on one knee with your hand on your forehead and pray, while everyone around you is doing something else. Fans saw him do this during a game and mimicked it. The results have been an internet sensation, but you won’t yet find the word in our dictionary. More recently, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry created the malapropism “forewithal” to describe how countries should respond to the global financial crisis. The word seems to be a combination of fortitude and wherewithal.
Words of the moment and clever coinages are great fun, but tergiversate continues to resonate across a variety of experiences from the past year. And don’t you think it’s better to walk away from a dictionary having learned something new?
Dictionary.com will also shortly be launching a Word of the Year contender word list and word learning game on Word Dynamo, its new online and mobile learning experience that combines the engagement of gaming with proven study techniques.
Dictionary.com is the leading provider of online and mobile language reference products and services. An IAC (NASDAQ: IACI) company, Dictionary.com, LLC offers a family of free, advertising-supported sites including: Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com, Reference.com and the fast-growing WordDynamo.com. Dictionary.com is also the leading dictionary app on all major mobile platforms (iPhone, Android, iPad, Blackberry, & Windows) with apps that have been downloaded over 40 million times. Dictionary.com serves an average of 50 million unique users worldwide per month (source: 2011 Quantcast data and internal mobile usage data). For more information, please visit www.dictionary.com.