The Word of the Year, 2003

by Dennis Baron

I am pleased to announce my choice for word of the year for 2003. WOTY, the Word of the Year, is not as glamorous as the Oscars, not as cutthroat as the Booker, not at silly as the Daytime Emmys. There’s no money attached to the word of the year, no gold statuette or platinum CD, no certificate suitable for framing. The word of the year may not even rate a dictionary appearance. Nonetheless, competition is fierce, for the word of the year reflects the state of the language and, by extension, the state of the world.

                  Last year, the war in Iraq generated the word of the year: weapons of mass destruction (phrases may also win). But since there were no weapons of mass destruction, this year’s entries from IraqSaddamize, Iraqification, and roadside bomb—have had their contender status downgraded from orange to yellow. Spider hole—the excavation where Saddam Hussein was found hiding—might have had a chance for word of the year, but since it first appeared in World War II, it can only enter in the category “best revival.” It looks like Iraq won’t be the source of this year’s word of the year unless someone can figure out how to use Halliburton as a verb.

                  The world of gender produced some good candidates for word of the year. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court thrust gay marriage onto the national consciousness in November when it decided that same-sex partners could not be excluded from the benefits, legal, conjugal, and taxable, that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts affords to married couples.

Gay marriage is controversial enough that conservatives want to amend the U.S. Constitution to ban it. Less likely to raise hackles is another WOTY possible, metrosexual, an urban straight male who is unashamedly into fashion, food, and personal grooming. Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean acknowledged his metrosexuality, but later backed away from the term, claiming he wasn’t sure what it meant.

Perhaps the most successful gender phrase of the year has been queer eye, from the Bravo cable network show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” in which a group of five gay men turn a volunteer Oscar Madison into a metrosexual. So far there have been no threats from the right to make queer eye unconstitutional, though a group of fashion-challenged gays is suing in Massachusetts for equal access to makeovers.

                  That brings us to the winner, this year’s word of the year. It’s a phrase that’s been lurking in the background for over a decade, but like a film that opens on Christmas so that it can make the Oscar deadline, this phrase suddenly hit everyone’s lips on December 22: it’s mad cow.

NPR announced news of the first U.S. cow to test positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy just as I was dishing up a nice sesame ginger beef stir fry. The sauce had just the right amount of sherry, lots of fresh shaved ginger, roasted sesame seeds, some perky fresh-squeezed lime, crisp straw mushrooms, whole baby corn, and the thinnest slices of bully American beef, all on a bed of wheat noodles which had been boiled for exactly three minutes and then flash fried.

We talked about mad cow disease all through dinner. A friend, who was also cooking beef stir fry, called to say, “I told you so.” When we finished eating, all that remained was the delicately-flavored beef, which we moved nervously around our plates with our chopsticks.

                  As we sit down to holiday meals, business lunches, and midnight snacks, we face the daunting prospect that the anorexics had it right: there is nothing safe to eat. Poultry harbors salmonella, green onions give you hepatitis, fish is full of toxins, and pork inspires so much terror that two of the world’s major religions ban it. It won’t be long before scientists discover tofu fever. Once beef merely clogged our arteries. Now it can make holes in our brains. Beef may or may not continue to be what’s for dinner in this country, but it’s clear that mad cow, the word of the year for 2003, will dominate American dinner table conversation—and economic activity—for much of the new year as well.