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Wordsleuth (2005, vol. 2, 2): 2004 - A YEAR IN WORDS

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 2, Number 2, 2005, page 28)

Remember the fat tax? Gas and dash? And of course the unforgettable wardrobe malfunction? Now that 2004 is well behind us, we can look at the new words and expressions it added to our vocabulary, some of them uniquely Canadian, some of them ephemeral, and some with staying power. Many had actually been lurking on the fringes of the language for a while until some event brought them to everyone’s attention. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary team in Toronto continually tracks the evolution of the language and records words for possible inclusion in future dictionaries. This is the lexicographers’ month-by-month list of some of the words and expressions that attracted their attention.

January

Bird flu. This expression has been around for at least ten years, but really impressed itself upon Canadians in January with a World Health Organization warning that the disease could be more serious than SARS, and even more so three months later with the slaughter of 80 per cent of the farm poultry in B.C. in an attempt to contain an outbreak. It became part of general parlance so quickly and so pervasively that it squeaked into the second edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary just before publication in June of 2004.

February

Wardrobe malfunction. The very first day of February brought us more of Janet Jackson than some people wanted to see and a new euphemism, which took off like wildfire.

March

Phishing. A new kind of spam inundated our inboxes, masquerading as e-mails from well-known, legitimate businesses, aiming to get us to divulge our personal information. The practice of phishing (from a combination of fishing and phreak) has actually existed for at least five years, but suddenly it was part of everyone’s experience.

April

Fat tax. The Ontario government floated the idea of imposing the PST on meals costing less than $4, claiming that this would deter people from eating fast food and was thus good for their arteries and waistlines. Quickly dubbed the fat tax and decried by anti-poverty activists, it never made it to the provincial budget.

Smart meter. The Ontario government also promoted the use of smart meters, which will record the time at which electricity is used so that consumers can take advantage of cheaper off-peak rates.

May

Gas and dash. A sharp increase in the price of gas precipitated the phenomenon of customers tanking up at self-serve gas bars and then driving off without paying. The price increase was dubbed the terror premium.

June

Clostridium difficile or C. difficile. Outbreaks of infection with the aptly named superbug in hospitals in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec led to drastic containment measures, which the stubborn microbe continued to resist for several months.

July

Celebrity justice. It started out as the name of a TV show, but with more and more celebrities having run-ins with the law, it has become a part of our language. "There’s no celebrity justice here. You don’t get treated differently in this country if your name is Martha, Michael or Ja Rule. Everyone is treated the same," said Toronto defence lawyer Steve Skurka of his client, the rapper Ja Rule, charged with assault after an incident at a Toronto nightclub in July.

August

Janjaweed. We first started hearing of the pro-government Sudanese Arab militias known as Janjaweed in late 2003, but by August 2004, with over 10,000 massacred in Sudan’s Darfur region, the word was being used so often in the media that the accompanying explanation of who the Janjaweed were was being omitted.

September

Nearshoring. As more and more US high-tech jobs were lost to offshore operations in India, China and Russia, some Canadian firms offered themselves as a nearshore alternative with costs not as low as elsewhere but with the advantage of proximity.

October

MOOTWA. The Ghosts of Medak Pocket, a book about Canadian peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia, brought the military acronym for Military Operations Other Than War to the attention of a general readership, making the point that "peacekeeping" is not always an apt name for the situations in which Canadian soldiers find themselves.

November/December

Strippergate. Immigration minister Judy Sgro found herself in deep trouble after it was revealed that the temporary residency permit of a Romanian exotic dancer who had volunteered for Sgro’s election campaign was extended on "compassionate" grounds just days before the federal election.

Orange Revolution. The people of Ukraine turned out en masse bedecked in the orange colours of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko to peacefully force a rerun of a rigged election.

Of these, bird flu was voted the expression most likely to stay in the language in a survey conducted by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary department, narrowly edging out wardrobe malfunction. For a word or expression to stay in the language, though, it has to fulfill a need. Accidentally exposing one’s breasts is not really that frequent an occurrence, so I doubt that we really need wardrobe malfunction, whereas we obviously need bird flu. However, it’s not a lexicographer’s job to predict what will happen with the language, but rather to wait for the language to decide and then record it.