It’s that time of year again: lexicographers from the Oxford English Dictionary have come together to pick the one word or phrase that defines the past 12 months.
2011 is the year of the “squeezed middle,” as suggested by British Labour Party politician Ed Miliband. OED compilers from both the U.S. and the U.K. came together to review the buzzwords that “captured the flavor of the year”—including occupy, podcasting, hacktivisim, Arab Spring, and an OED judge’s favorite, “bunga bunga”—used in reference to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s scandalous parties.
Miliband discussed the word on BBC’s Radio 4 earlier this year, where he failed to clearly define who the “squeezed middle” exactly included, saying it referred to people “around the average income, but below and above the average income.” This obviously includes just about everyone, and after being called out by host John Humphrys, Miliband clarified: “I’m not talking about people on benefits, I’m not talking about people on six-figure salaries either; I’m talking about the broad middle class in this county who find themselves financially hard-pressed.”
The OED in turn defines “squeezed middle” as “the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes, and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those people on low or middle incomes.”
Though critics of the choice say that it’s too vague and all-encompassing to have much meaning, the phrase seems fitting following last year’s winner: “big society.” Susie Dent, an Oxford dictionary spokesperson and judge, said that the list of words up for consideration this year was a “sober list for sober times.” Of “squeezed middle,” Dent defended the choice, saying in a statement that the “likelihood of its endurance as anxieties deepen made it a good global candidate for Word of the Year.”
And while it may feel like a loose definition, Dent says “it’s something that, in a way, we all feel we belong to.”