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Word Up

"Transparency" with a twist.



You've been waiting to hear all year. The year's over. The votes are in. "Flash mob" and "nanotube" were runners-up, but they didn't make the cut. The official Word of the Year, according to the editors of Webster's New World College Dictionary, is "transparency." Old word. Brand-new, extended meaning, as in:

"Corporate America ... [is] ... vowing to sin no more, to tell shareholders the straight truth instead of playing accounting games, to embrace 'transparency' so outsiders can see what's going on" (Newsweek, 5/20/2002). Or:

"[Archbishop Harry Flynn] 'is exactly what Boston needs right now. He believes in full disclosure, in zero tolerance, in transparency'" (USA Today, quoting a law professor, 12/16/02).

But what's with this Word of the Year? The Flyer wanted to know, so the Flyer called Cleveland and talked to Mike Agnes, editor in chief of Webster's New World.

The Flyer: "Transparency." The Word of the Year. What are we talking about?

Mike Agnes: The Word of the Year is a publicity thing. We have great fun with it and wonderful arguments about what we should choose and why among the submitted suggestions. "Transparency" grabbed my attention because it seems to be used with a new spin in so many areas of human activity -- government, business, nonprofits, church hierarchies, diplomacy. We have citations about adding "transparency" to the diplomatic exchanges between Pakistan and India. Everybody's on the bandwagon! The last time I can think of this happening was when "glasnost" became the rallying cry in Russia in the '80s.

"Transparency" struck an international chord? It was your staff's obvious choice?

Yes, people were dismayed after Enron and the Catholic Church scandals and so forth. Here was a word that seemed to fill a need. The choice was obvious to me. I took it to the most senior editor here, and he said immediately yes. We don't always have such a candidate. Sometimes it's a word that shows American English at its most slyly inventive. It tickles our fancy. We did "senior moment" in 2000. What a great word.

"Senior moment"? Never heard of it.

It's a moment of forgetfulness. People in their 50s were using it. We can't say it flooded the airwaves though. "Job-spill" was last year, the phenomenon by which your workday life spills over into your private life.

What about this year's McDonald's hoopla over a dictionary entry for "McJob"?

You're thinking of Merriam-Webster, a competitor, in Springfield, Massachusetts. I think they made a decision to put it in their dictionary. I've got a copy here of their latest, and I can check it for you. [Sound of pages turning -- quickly] If not, it's probably a word the Oxford English has considered. Oxford's got an excuse. I mean, anything with 20 volumes ... I'd be putting in a lot of new words too. But "McJob" wouldn't be one of them though ... [Pages still turning] ... Um, well, of course, if I could spell "McJob" that would help ... No, it doesn't look like Merriam has put it in. They've got "mackinaw" and "McIntosh" and "McLaurin Series" ... It looks like "McJob" is probably something from Oxford ... Oh no, I take it back. Merriam does have "McJob"! [So does the American Heritage, fourth edition.]

Dumb question, but how do you edit a dictionary for new words and old words with extended meanings?

Our staff of 12 ... that's everybody. We have two "readers," and together those readers produce 1,500 citations a month. Our files hold about 1.8 million citation cards. I read a lot of British and contemporary fiction, and our most senior editor has read every issue for the last 30 years of The New Yorker, cover to cover. Three of us read England's Times Literary Supplement every week.

It's high culture to low?

One of our editors covers comic strips Actually, do we call them "comic strips" now? Yes. I was about to say "funny pages." But that's a bit dated So, high culture to low, yes. Soup-can labels. Anything. Subway signs. Bus signs. Men's-room graffiti. Everything.

High-tech terms must be a huge new source.

High-tech is of interest, but it contributes new words to a lesser degree than you'd expect. Consider the demographics. Only 60 percent of households are connected to the Internet. So terms like "blog" mean nothing to them. What's more important is medicine. Medicine is now not a technical topic but a consumer issue. Newspapers today probably have three times the number of medical articles than they did 10 years ago. Think protease inhibitors. West Nile virus. And then you've got "lifestyles." Seems like 10 years ago we became a nation of "foodies." We've had to add words over the years, like "biscotti."

"Metrosexual." One minute it didn't exist. The next it was all over the place. Yea or nay?

That's a clever word, but I think you're going to see that one die. It doesn't have the punch, the staying power, or the utility of, say, "yuppie." "Metrosexual" may make it into someone else's dictionary, but I don't see it making the grade here. Just because a word is clever doesn't mean it has "legs."

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