Wednesday Words: Readers’ Choice for ‘Word of the Year’ and More

NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary includes useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).

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Word of the Year winner: occupy

Last week, I rounded up various nominations for Word of the Year, from dictionaries and pundits to sports and travel—and even from Neil Diamond. We put it to a vote, and the winner—shock of shocks!—was occupy. That is occupy as in Occupy Wall Street, as in the people who have been camping out around the world for months to protest the power held by the richest 1%. That word came away with 27% percent of the vote, indelible proof that this was the era when people didn’t have jobs but found themselves some occupations.

Runners-up: In second place with 18% was Dictionary.com’s nomination, tergiversate, a word meant to encapsulate the year’s erratic zeitgeist. And in third place with 12% was Tebow, a verb derived from the skills of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, a man who can play a terrible game and then “find some magic in the last 10 minutes or so and lead your team to victory.” So there you have it: protests, unpredictability, the rare miracle. 2011 in a nutshell. (Full results are listed on the next page.)

(LIST: Top 10 Buzzwords of 2011)

Controversial character: Kriss Kringle

The Associated Press Style Guide, bible for journalists across the globe, has put out their holiday guidelines. Among the many yuletide terms is Kriss Kringle. That is Kriss, not Kris. Perhaps more surprising than the spelling is their dictate that this term refers to little baby Jesus rather than Santa Claus. The Oxford English Dictionary, a bible for linguists across the globe, defines Kriss Kringle as a synonym for the North Pole denizen, but they include a quote from the eminent H.L. Mencken that backs up the AP. “Another example of debased German is offered by the American Kriss Kringle,” Mencken writes. “It is from Christkindlein, or Christkind’l, and properly designates, of course, not the patron saint of Christmas, but the child in the manger.”

Another opinion: Certainly the name Kris(s) Kringle may have been inspired by a name for Jesus, but linguistic things change—and more important, the definitive Christmas reference says that Kris Kringle is indeed Santa. That’s right. Miracle on 34th Street. As a general rule of thumb, it if was good enough for Natalie Wood, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Not on the AP’s good list: Xmas

At the end of the guidelines, the AP says that Xmas is not to be used as an abbreviation for Christmas. It’s worth noting that this shorthand is not some modern atheist abomination, but a term that’s been around since the 1500s and one used by the likes of Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as in Mr. Water-Water-Everywhere-Nor-Any-Drop-to-Drink. Nowadays, there is much hand-wringing about the term, worry that using Xmas “takes the Christ out of Christmas,” but many believe the X actually comes from the Greek letter chi (as in “Christos”), which is symbolized by a X. Late in his life, Coleridge wrote that “Every reform, however necessary, will by weak minds be carried to an excess, that itself will need reforming.” Perhaps this particular phobia is one such reform.

Fun fact: Coleridge also coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” the term we use for a reader or movie-goer’s voluntary withholding of skepticism in the face of incredible events. In fact, 626 entries in the OED have Coleridge listed as the first citation, their first known usage of the word. These include intensify, bisexual and postprandial. People should clearly just be referring to him as “The Man.” Make sure to remember Mr. Coleridge in your holiday toasts.

(READ: A Brief History of Advent)

Full poll results on the following page.

Correction: A previous edition of this post misidentified the actor Jimmy Stewart as a star in Miracle on 34th Street. Thanks to a commenter for pointing out the error.

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