Old words given new meanings

It’s that time of year to reveal the most over-used words for 2012. The number-one slot for 2011 was captured by “occupy” as the Arab Spring rebellions spread to Wall Street. Last year the winner was “fiscal cliff.”

A precise interpretation of fiscal cliff as a politically inspired economic crisis was hard to uncover. It seemed to me that if the expiration of tax cuts (more revenue) were offset by budget increases (more spending), the economy would come out about the same, not sliding off the fiscal cliff into a chasm of ruin.

Well, members of Congress thought they had dodged the plunge with a midnight session on New Year’s Eve, but they only voted in the second most over-used words of 2012, “kick the can down the road,” defined as neglecting responsibility.

The clearing house for this word contest is Lake Superior State University that publishes the annual Banished Word List. Among the many other selections are “bucket list” and “YOLO” (you only live once).

Sometimes the source of these cast-out words is vague. Mostly they are coined by the media for headlines and appear repeatedly in communications until they acquire a life of their own. It is also presumed that the words are understood by the casual reader. That’s not always the case as I often find myself checking a dictionary or the web to grasp what the reporter is saying.

One obvious habitat for YOLO is the realm of wannabe Twitter philosophers who like brevity for texting. Another application is for teenagers doing really stupid things while wearing a YOLO sweatshirt emblem as an excuse for their misbehavior. After all, they sincerely believe you only live once.

The two top words of fiscal cliff and kick the can are easy to relate to political shenanigans and economic exploitation. Some other new vocabulary interpretations for fiscal issues were coined by retiring Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner during his term in the Obama cabinet.

Good ideas were “cool,” better ideas were “compelling.” Managing public perceptions is called “public theatre.” This was the new language battered about in Washington D.C., reported The Economist. The best Geithner go-to words for how to deal with an unavoidable crisis is “foam on the runway.”

I decided to add a few of my own for 2012 and prior. “Apps” is used for a variety of ideas and products. I recently read that the Mortgage Bankers Association has an index for mortgage rates in the form of an app. Of course, most iPad consumers know that applications are used to download favorite tunes.

An old phrase that has been over-used during the recession is “sea change.” The archaic definition can be traced to Shakespeare’s 1612 play “The Tempest” when Prospero declared a change had been brought by the sea. The modern use of sea change usually means transformation of public policy. It is also a popular title in literature and music.

Already the prime candidate for the over-used word in 2013 is “sequester.” Used as a verb, it means to isolate or hide away. The noun is more directly related to government spending, defining a general cut in government spending, according to Merriam Webster. Take your pick -- either definition is just another case of kicking the can.

Another new word getting attention since last year is “Libor.” It simply is the acronym for the London interbank offered rate. That means the daily borrowing rate of interest used by banks for global currency exchanges.

The reason Libor appears regularly in the news is the scandal created by British banks that rigged the rate to their advantage. More on that in another commentary.

In a related survey, word meister, Richard Lederer, compared some ancient firearm words to the version used in everyday language. An example: “bite the bullet” was an expression from the Revolutionary War to perform battlefield surgery without adequate anesthesia. Bite hard on a bullet “to deal with a stressful situation,” as we use the term today.

A “flash in the pan” referred to the misfiring of a flintlock musket causing a flash in the primer pan of the rifle but now is used to describe “an intense but short-lived success or person who fails to live up to early promise.” A “skinflint,” or frugal person, was one who shaved the flint of a musket to improve its firing capacity and to save money.

Lederer concluded with “lock, stock and barrel” depicting the entirety of something, or even better, “the whole shooting match.” Clever.

Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at

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