W00t! WTF?


In 1828 Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language. Webster, believing that the Brits had complicated spelling, simplified things down and removed just about as many Us from the language as possible. That’s why we’re all fortunate enough to spell color correctly instead of the baffling colour.

Unfortunately, despite his efforts, Webster was only able to sell 2,500 copies and mortgaged his home to publish the second edition, which didn’t fare much better.

Following in his populist footsteps, Merriam-Webster now polls users online to determine “The Word of the Year.” Previous winners have included neologisms, blog, and truthiness; and, as sign of the times, democracy and integrity. This year it was w00t.

photo / webbysworld Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Tiny dictionary – pocket w00t 

As the lexicographer himself said, “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground.”

Taken at face value, it seems like Webster might have been gung-ho for the more successful version of his dictionary to embrace nerdy subcultures and kooky new words that the general – “broad and low” – populace chooses to dish out.

But this is stupid.

The victory – w00t FTW! – has been reported in pretty much every major media outlet. Thing is, though, no one cares.

While it looks like the poll has previously been a decent barometer of the zeitgeist, I think it’s safe to say that the popularity contest for words means pretty much nothing now. W00t is the parlance of the incredibly un-geek-chic, and I say that as someone who spends a lot of time playing online games. Not even Woot.com saw a significant bump in traffic since the December 12 announcement.

The words that w00t beat out are hardly serious lexical threats. Okay, second-place Facebook is a serious contender. It probably would have meant something if it had won. And third-place conundrum is a fairly typical word, but word of the year? Likewise, quixotic – one of my favorite words – says nothing about the year or even the decade.

And then we get into the obvious I’m-too-stoned-to-do-anything-but-submit-goofy-ass-words-to-an-online-contest category. Sardoodledom? Pecksniffian? The first is a literary take down based on an oh-so-witty insult coined by G.B. Shaw to burn French playwright Victorien Sardou. (His plays were like melodramatic doodles. Snap! W00t!) The second is based, apparently, on one of Charles Dickens’ most evil characters, Seth Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewitt.


I got my degree in English with a focus on theater and I hadn’t even heard of either playwright or character, much less been inclined to take their names in vain over the course of the year. I have, though, spent plenty of time around undergrads who are pretentious as hell and think it’s hilarious to pretend like The Pickwick Papers could be used as an apt metaphor for the war in Iraq.

No, this has nothing to do with language changing to adapt to a new medium of communication – which is awesome! – or being shaped organically (though that happens too.) Nope. It has to do, first, with the fact that Noah Webster’s progeny is a lot more successful than he ever was and an annual contest like this (which makes it an obvious story idea) and, second, with the fact that most of the mainstream press and society are simultaneously a little bit scared and fascinated with technology and techno cultures.

It’s the Gee Whiz story. As, for a personal and frequently encountered example, “Gee whiz, there’s sex in them thar ________ (pick one: virtual worlds, internets, phone lines).” Only this time, the AP missed the story.

The story isn’t that w00t is really the word of the year. That’s a basic fact, but, again, it’s a dumb fact. The real story is that the nerds rose up and made w00t the word of the year (or that the Pecksniff-ers just couldn’t muster up any support at all). But let’s be optimistic: A small group of people motivated themselves enough to make their voices heard and have all the world, New York Times included, speak their language for one day.

And it worked, briefly. Google trends showed the searches for w00t spike up in a hockey stick curve after virtually no attention for thee years (except, weirdly, for a couple of long plateaus. What’s up, December 2005 and Autumn 2006?). Unfortunately, the revolution was Googled and televised, but it was very short-lived. That same day the trend turned on a dime that barely stopped.

We can’t define zeitgeist, but we can add a corollary to Webster’s idea: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, of dictionary makers, or of silly online contests.

photo / scjody Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 w00t!