It’s the most superlative time of the year. Critics are looking back at the past months and deciding which were the best of times and which were the worst of times; what was most wise and what was most foolish; whether 2011 will be chiefly remembered for its Arab Spring or Winter of Discount Tents (as one Occupy sign put it).
Part of this rite is choosing a “Word of the Year.” Few things mark time or mood or change like our language. From the list below, it’s easy to see that these past months have not been easy ones—even if the world has been planking with abandon.
In these newfangled Interweb days, neologisms and slang terms are rising and falling at DSL speeds, and only a tiny percentage will have kept their place in our lexicon once Superlative Season rolls around next year. But for now, here are 15 words and phrases that people are picking for top placement in 2011. (And click here to vote for your favorite.)
(LIST: TIME’s Top 10 Buzzwords of 2011)
- occupy—This was chosen by the Global Language Monitor, and was my TIME pick for top buzzword of the year. Yes, it’s obvious. But it’s also been everywhere, from the original Wall Street movement to Antarctica to jokes in the late-night lineups. “Occupying,” what activists have been doing to protest the power held by the richest 1%, may well be remembered as this generation’s sit-in.
- squeezed middle—The dictionary crew at the Oxford University Press made this populist pick. The “squeezed middle” is “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.”
- bunga bunga—This phrase, referring to the give-it-to-me-baby parties of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, was a runner-up for the OUP and various other outlets. Its odds are long, but such a colorful term should still find long-standing company in hubba-hubba and oooh-la-la.
- tiger mother—The OUP defines a tiger mother as “a demanding mother who pushes her children to high achievement using methods regarded as typical of Asian childrearing.” The term was popularized after Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn came out in January. She praised such methods (particularly as opposed to the Namby-Pamby School of Western Parenting).
- humblebrag—This is one of language guru Ben Zimmer’s favorites, not least because it was actually coined in 2011 (rather than taking on new meaning, like occupy). The term, referring to “bragging that masks the brag in a faux-humble guise,” was made famous through a Twitter feed of that name. A classic example might be, “Oh, I feel so violated when people run up out of nowhere to tell me how attractive I am.”
- tergiversate—Dictionary.com bucked the trend of using a word we’ve heard a lot over the past months and instead chose one that the editors felt embodied the zeitgeist. Tergiversate means to “change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.” The Republican race, if nothing else, supports the notion that we’ve been a fickle people.
- Murdoch—This verb, derived from the cutthroat business man the world loves to hate, is a top pick for David Barnhart, editor of the Barnhart Dictionary Companion, a quarterly update of new words. He defines Murdoch as “to bring under the control of Rupert Murdoch.” As in, “The Wall Street Journal was totally Murdoched in 2007.”
- exhilaration—Songwriting legend Neil Diamond has been having quite the exciting time. “Falling in love is such a wonderful feeling to experience at this point in my life,” he recently told the Washington Post of his manager, Katie. “Exhilaration is the operable word this year.” (There had to be at least one option for the all happy people.)
- attachiant(e)—This was the winner at Festival XYZ, a neologism jamboree held in Le Havre, France, last month. As a writer from the Guardian explains, attachiant(e) is “a combination of attachant (captivating, endearing) and the slang word chiant (bloody nuisance) to denote someone you cannot live with but cannot live without.” Many in America call these “wives,” “husbands” or “children.”
- volatility—In an article about AT&T’s plan to buy T-Mobile, an economic guru sums up the feelings of many stock-holders and market-mongers: “Volatility,” he writes, “is undoubtedly the investing word of the year for 2011.” And many may feel it applies equally well to other parts of life.
- Arab Spring—This phrase, referring to the spread of pro-democracy revolutions across the Middle East, was a winner for the Global Language Monitor, and a runner-up for others. Stories of the chaos, from Tunisia burning at the beginning of the year to Gaddafi falling at the end, dominated the news. The “spring” referred to here does not refer to the season, but rather to the rebirth or renewal that word often connotes.
- austercation—In an Economic Times travel article, the author works through new terms, and calls this the definite word of the year. A fusion of austerity and vacation, the word “was coined to describe the growing trend of swapping hot travel destinations for something cheaper, closer home.” It’s another term that encapsulates the year’s constant economic hand-wringing.
- winning—Another popular nominee, winning this year found new meaning courtesy of Charlie Sheen. He constantly described himself as “winning” and being a “winner” during his slow, painful, ostensibly drug-induced walk off the sanity plank. (If losing the highest-paid acting job in TV is winning, then losing it is.)
- planking—This Australian fad was the first of many media memes to rise and fall this year. Planking is the practice of being photographed while lying face down in an unusual or dangerous place so that the picture can be put on a social networking website. The likes of Justin Bieber were even throwing themselves prostrate in planking’s highest times. That’s right. Bieber.
- Tebow—A member of the ESPN team offered up Tebowed—as in the divisive, pious Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow—as the word this year. The definition: “playing horrible for 50ish minutes only to find some magic in the last 10 minutes or so and lead your team to victory.” The other team in this instance will have the rather unpleasant experience of “getting Tebowed.” Tebowing was also a meme in 2011, in which people would spontaneously pray in odd situations.
Note: Some groups are still to come with their choices. The American Dialect Society, for example, won’t choose their word of the year for another month. We’ve tried to include some of their likely nominations where possible and haven’t had room for the all the words we’d like, by a country mile. But we’re always open to hearing about any important outlets we’ve missed. (Particularly if the word they chose will make us giggle.)