Neopolisms: Slang and Politics Unite!

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In the latest issue of American Speech, the Fall 2010 edition, the editors finally get around to determining the winners for the 2009 Words of the Year. The most fun is undoubtedly “Dracula sneeze,” meaning the type where you achoo into the crux of your elbow to avoid spreading those nasty germs. But beyond adorable PSA terms, the list contains an impressive amount of nominees and winners that have political ties.

For the category of Most Useful, rogue — that’s right, as in “going rogue” — was nominated, as was the attachment -er. While the latter is clearly not a new suffix, its surge into political commentary was deemed noteworthy — as in birther or teabagger, or however used to “refer, often disparagingly, to conspiracy theorists and others on the political fringes.” Their prediction is that -er will become the next -gate, that most useful suffix brought to us by Richard Nixon’s poor decision-making.

Most Euphemistic went to a fabulously underused verbal phrase: hike the Appalachian trail, a term for cheating on one’s wife that was derived from former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s poor excuse-making — saying he was trekking through the mountains while he was really in Argentina with his mistress. The extensions of this line of thinking are abundant. As in, “Hiking the Appalachian trail is much safer if you remember to wear boots,” or “Real men never pay to hike the Appalachian trail.”(Public option made the nominee list for Most Euphemistic, that noun referring to a “government-run alternative to private health insurance.”)

Salahi, a verb meaning to crash a secured event, was nominated for Most Unnecessary, as was birther, and death panel outright won the category of Most Outrageous. Their definition: “Alleged government-run committee that denies health care to those deemed undeserving; mischaracterization of proposed voluntary end-of-life counseling.” (See Kate’s rundown of the latest panel-related antics here.) Teabagger also won an outrageous nomination, perhaps proof that academics aren’t entirely mired in hotbeds of liberalism.

And a final nomination, for Least Likely to Succeed, went to Poliwood, a noun referring to the intersection of national politics with film and television celebrities. (Sadly, Hollytics did not make the cut.)

Perhaps the density of neopolisms (TIME’s contribution) is an indication of how much politics is central to the national conversation, affecting our language as well as our lives. Or maybe they abound because as the left and right move to extremes, the in-groups seek out more ways to identify themselves. If we look to linguistic theorists like Connie Eble or Jonathon Lighter, we find that any true slang should do three things: (1) make conversation more informal, (2) oppose established authority and (3) identify members of an in-group. We media seem to be becoming increasingly informal and in-groupy too, and with unprecedented amounts of people writing (or blogging or tweeting) on the same topics, neologisms may be increasingly used in an attempt to set stories apart.

Whether used by activists or reporters, this sort of slang primarily displays familiarity so deep that it can border on flippancy. (Like the way people in my hometown of Springfield, Mo., refer to that place: Springfield becomes Springpatch or Springding or SproMo.) Have you Swamplanders come across any more recent neopolisms that should be nominated for 2010?

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