A 2010 dictionary (abridged)

The political and cultural whirlwinds of the year echoed in the vocabulary that we chose

December 31, 2010

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primaried (v.)

THIS NEOLOGISM denotes an intra-party challenge to an incumbent or establishment candidate, and it took root on the right in a year of Tea Party intensity, grass-roots activism, and demands for ideological purity.

If a candidate strayed far enough from the conservative line to earn the dreaded epithet RINO (Republican in Name Only), he or she ran the very real risk of being “primaried.’’ Remarkably, the right-wing revolt against establishment Republicans even became a tactic encouraged by one prominent GOP incumbent, South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint. And certainly fear of being primaried had sitting senators and representatives casting frequent glances over their shoulders.

Yet conservative victories, when they came, sometimes proved pyrrhic, saddling the GOP with a candidate who couldn’t win in November. Still, by year’s end, the term — and perhaps the tactic — was catching on in other quarters. After President Obama cut his tax cut deal with Congressional Republicans, true-blue lefties commenced a debate about whether the man they had enthusiastically embraced just two years ago should be . . . primaried.


Snooki (n.)

IT SOUNDS like a verb or an adjective, but it’s actually a noun: Nicole “Snooki’’ Polizzi, the breakout star of MTV’s “Jersey Shore.’’ Before 2010, she was another big-haired girl with a tan far too deep to have formed naturally in her hometown of Poughkeepsie. Now, she’s a multimedia phenomenon with a deal to “write’’ a “novel’’ — despite the fact that she’s only read two books in her life.

This year, you didn’t have accomplish anything to make it big. In fact, it helped quite a bit if your life was an utter mess. ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars’’ opened its parquet floor to Snooki’s gym-addicted costar, The Situation, and to Bristol Palin, previously known as the pregnant teen with the politician mom.

Teen pregnancy was an excellent path to stardom, given the crazed interest in the stars of MTV’s “Teen Mom.’’ The series is actually great: emotional, unflinching. But the tabloids have taken far too many glamour shots of the likes of Amber Portwood, who attacked her ex-fiancé, got a tattoo of her daughter on her stomach, and, if you believe Star Magazine, is now pregnant again.

Amber doesn’t seem like much of a reader herself, but she’ll probably get a book deal, too. The publishing world has been Snooki-ed. Or snookered. As the “Jersey Shore’’ cast would tell you, it’s basically the same thing.


loyalty (n.)

INDEPENDENT TIM Cahill called it the most underrated virtue, while Republican rival Charlie Baker deemed it the most overrated. During this year’s race for governor, “loyalty’’ wasn’t just an allusion to a bizarre political scandal, but also a shorthand for a basic tension in state politics.

Cahill had reason to be sensitive about loyalty; he learned too late that his consultants and even his running mate had schemed behind his back for Baker’s benefit. But the word also lay at the heart of Cahill’s old-style idea of governing — one built on loyalty to old friends and supporters, and the prototypical regular guy.

To Baker and others in white-collar Massachusetts, it’s axiomatic that the state should operate in a more businesslike way. A somewhat less principled approach held sway at, oh, the state Probation Department, whose commissioner, John O’Brien, got his job partly through old neighborhood ties and kept it by doling out public jobs as political favors.

Cahill, who has deep ties to O’Brien and expressed reservations about the kind of pension reforms proposed by good-government groups, put a more genial face on loyalty politics. A telling pro-Cahill post on the political website Red Mass Group summed him up as a “lug’’ who “would give you the shirt off his back.’’

Cahill lost, but so did Baker. Loyalty isn’t much of a political philosophy, but rejecting it entirely is still bad form.


refudiate (v.)

REFUDIATE THIS: Sarah Palin is a marketing genius who turned herself into the Kim Kardashian of politics.

In 2010, Palin achieved the ultimate American dream—starring in her own reality TV show. "Sarah Palin’s Alaska" lets John McCain's running mate perpetuate her celebrity and maximize the family brand. So what if this family-values mom also set up daughter Bristol to be mocked as a chubby klutz on a celebrity-talent show? It's all for a good cause: Sarah Palin Inc.

Because Palin is now famous for being famous, every utterance is news. That's how "refudiate" was born. In July, Palin condemned a proposed Islamic center near the World Trade Center site with this tweet: "Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn't it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate." Critics bashed her for using a word that didn't exist. Now it does, to the dismay of elitists everywhere. The New Oxford American Dictionary has deemed "refudiate" the year's best new word, defining it as a "verb used loosely to mean 'reject.'"

Somewhere, another ex-governor with Oval Office aspirations is dreaming about "Mitt Romney's Massachusetts." But instead of blowing caribou to bits, Romney will be hunting varmints and hoping GOP voters refudiate Palin.

traumatic brain injury (n.)

FINALLY, WE’VE ended the denial over “traumatic brain injuries,’’ the concussive blasts that afflict both the gallant soldiers of war and the gilded heroes of sport.

After reporters exposed the military’s ignorance and negligence on brain injuries sustained in battle, President Obama felt moved to assure Americans in an Oval Office address that the government is now “treating the signature wounds of today’s wars.’’ Meanwhile, a growing body of research tying concussions to dementia, depression, and other cognitive diseases — along with congressional outrage over pro football’s indifference to its growing legion of crippled and dead stars from the 1960s and ’70s — forced the National Football League to dramatically overhaul its procedures.

By halfway this season, reports of concussions were up 34 percent over the halfway point of the 2008 season. Players are scaling back the machismo in ways inconceivable only a year ago. Recently, Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a concussion in a game the team desperately needed to win to make the playoffs. He wanted to come back in the game, but teammate Donald Driver told him, “Your life is more important than this game.’’

If Driver’s compassion in the heat of battle becomes the norm, and if the military makes treating brain injuries a higher priority, the nation will benefit. As hard as we want soldiers and athletes to be, it cannot come at the expense of soft tissue.


retweet (v.)

I DON’T own an iPod or an iPad. I’ve never used TiVo or Wii. I haven’t got GPS in my car, Blu-Ray in my living room, or a smartphone in my pocket. But I tweet.

It may seem odd that an “urban Amish” type like me has embraced Twitter. (I’m @Jeff_Jacoby.) But I’m hardly alone in finding value in the ultrabrief bursts of information — tweets and retweets — that Twitterers share. Back in January, there were around 75 million Twitter users. Twelve months later, that number is at 175 million, and climbing.

Senator Harry Reid uses Twitter to send messages to Lady Gaga. Thomas Friedman believes that the revolution will be Twittered. Not me. I like Twitter because it enables me to comment on topics that are worth an observation but not a column. Because even a short wade in the Twitter stream leads me to interesting ideas I might never otherwise encounter.

Because Twitter is like a crowded global bulletin board on which I can read messages from an unparalleled diversity of users and then pass them along to others.

And because all of it happens in 140 characters or fewer.

On Twitter, brevity is the soul of wit — and everything else. In a world of endless e-blather, such digital terseness is just too good to pass up. Even for someone as low-tech as me.


bedbugs (n.)

AT A time when terrorism, global warming, and the possibility of a nuclear Iran threaten the world, it’s almost comforting that bedbugs — an invention not of radical mullahs or avaricious industry, but of nature — have garnered so much attention lately.

Almost, but not. Because they’re terrifying. They feast on our blood when we sleep. They can survive unfed for a year. A Google image search for their bites reveals page after page of welt-y horror. Getting rid of them involves more meticulousness than implementing President Obama’s health care law. They have flapped otherwise unflappable residents of New York City, where the invasion is most severe, and have temporarily shut down stores and hotels there and elsewhere. Twentysomethings have begun forgoing curbside furniture that once would have been irresistible.

Just as the folds of our couches and clothes serve as perfect hiding spots for bedbugs, our frenzied 24/7 media landscape is an ideal breeding ground for bedbug-related panic. Bedbugs hit such a tender nerve — our homes are supposed to be the one place where we’re safe! — that it’s no wonder they’ve captured our attention, turning every itch, every strange red mark, into a harbinger of a entomological disaster.

And they could be crawling on you right now.


A short list of other big buzzwords:

"It gets better.”
Hope for gay teens

Angry Birds (n.)
time-wasting perfected

Winklevi (n.)
twins double-crossed

pre-existing condition (n.)
health care flares up

vuvuzela (n.)
the sound of soccer fandom

meat dress (n.)
Lady Gaga’s raw style

“Who dat?”
an improbable Super Bowl

man up (v.)
var.: get your man pants on

iPad (n.)
tablet revolution

Four Loko (n.)
one jolt too many

barn jacket (n.)
Scott Brown storms the Senate

top kill (n., v.)
leak under the gulf

“Don’t touch my junk!”
airport scanner panic

American exceptionalism (n.)
Tea Party mantra

Donald Heathfield (n.)
spies in Cambridge

privacy settings (n.)
or lack thereof