An A-to-Z Guide to 2012's Worst Words

The Atlantic

Every year is chock-full of words, and we have feelings about those words. We live with them, we love them, we let them roll around in our mouths, and we express them. We think about them and spit them out, vehemently, when we are angry. We grow tired of them, we dislike some on sight, and we drop them, eventually, and move on to hate others. Many times, we use the same words year after year, and sometimes, we rail on those words (see our continued excoriation of poor old moist. What did moist ever do to any of us?). There are words, phrases, and coinages that end up marking each year—some old, some new. There are the long-existing words that have shifted in meaning, or become popularized because of a public usage, like malarkey, as invoked by Joe Biden in his vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan in the fall. And there are the ones we create, like Romneyshambles, or mansplain. Or maybe the coinage enters our consciousness because of a news story, event, or person (fiscal cliff, Kony). However we meet them, we use them in all sorts of ways, and there are also all sorts of ways in which we can dislike them: their sound, what they remind us of, what they make us think, their actual meaning, their overuse, their descent into meaninglessness, and so on.

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But, look, the list that follows, comprising our year in worst words, isn't just about word-hating. There were also words and phrases and silly and serious expressions we loved! Fine, they're not on the list, but we'll briefly recognize a few of them here: Like, for instance, malarkeySnor'eastercane (in name if not in deed). "Très Brooklyn," maybe it was très terrible, but it was fun, too, no? Oui! And underbrag— hat is a word with a special place in my heart, even if it did arise on these very pages, which may make this statement an unfortunate brag-brag (I promise, I wrote it while covered in Doritos crumbs after a brutal night at a holiday party).

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Of course, you may hate any and all of those words and others; that is your prerogative. But agree with me on this: There is no better way for a semantic-minded person to remember the year than with a list of the words we used and saw and heard, those words we'd just as soon never write or see or hear spoken again.

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Note: We mean no offense to these words, even when we call them despicable. One woman's worst word might be another's best. Bad words are a matter of opinion, and each is entitled to his own. And sometimes by hating a word, you—strangely—grow to love it. Here, with the help of some friends, is our semantic walk through 2012.

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Actually. Adverb, mostly. When Sarah Miller declared war on literally over at The Awl, I argued that actually was worse, the "talk to the hand of the adverb community," or "the word that you use when you're actually saying, 'You are wrong, and I am right, and you are at least a little bit of an idiot.'" Actually, I still agree with that. 

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Artisanal. Adjective. I got rid of Artisanal this May, or at least I tried to, and I wrote him an obituary I thought he would appreciate—"Artisanal, a word that fought early in his career to ensure recognition of craftsmen for their important contributions to society before later being drafted into the creation of a worldwide gourmet branding glut, died Wednesday at his brownstone in Brooklyn overlooking a small gourmet mayonnaise store. At best estimates, he was approximately 474 years old." And yet ... he has the audacity to continue to pop up in cubicles. As related to NASA. On The Simpsons. In, yes, mayo. On pizza crusts, in another word form. Everywhere, including even in water. He is us and we are he. Like a character in a soap opera who turns out to have been living in a cave and plotting his revenge the whole time that his lover and arch nemesis thought he'd been "taken care of" by a biker gang off the coast of Newfoundland, Artisanal is not going away anytime soon, I fear. He'll probably live forever.

Baby Bump. Horrid compound noun. I just hate this twee term, I really do, which manages to be both infantalizing and depersonalizing to both baby bump and baby carrier. It's not a bump; that human woman is pregnant. (See T for more on twee).

Brogrammer. Noun. Our tech writer Rebecca Greenfield offers up her opinion on this one, which she sees as an issue with meaning rather than the specific formulation of letters: "The word itself isn't so horrible, though we're starting to get a little tired of the portmanteaux [see P for more on that]," she says. "But it describes the rise of a darker side of tech nerdism that makes us sad. While the phenomenon might not be as widespread as certain reports suggest, over the last year we've seen instances of sexism come out of that world that lead us to believe at least some Silicon Valley coders fall under this fratty programmer umbrella. Like, all the times tech companies have used 'bikini babes' in professional settings. Come on, guys."

Butt-chugging. Whatever you want it to be, really. This one from language columnist and linguist Ben Zimmer, who wrote in an email, "My candidate for worst word of the year is butt-chugging. It’s an unpleasant term for an unpleasant practice, which came to light when a member of the University of Tennessee’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning." He explains further of this horrible term and its horrible logistical realities, "Reports said he had engaged in an alcohol enema, known in frat circles as butt-chugging. The student, through his lawyer, denied the butt-chugging charge, but in so doing made the slang term national news. I hope I never have to hear it again." 

Curate. Verb. "I must say that no Internet buzzword irked me more this year than curate," explains The Atlantic Wire's Richard Lawson. "It's a reappropriated term that used to mean something good — putting lovely and interesting things in a museum! — but now denotes a technique of cobbling together preexisting web content and sharing it with readers/followers/whomever. In other words, linking to things. It's an awfully highfalutin term for something that many of us do every day, on Facebook and Twitter. Sharing links isn't a some special skill or trade, but self-described curators, who rose to great power in 2012, are effectively asserting that it is."

Curvy. Adjective to describe female bodies. As writer and editor Lauren Bans recently pointed out in New York's The Cut, we appear to be at peak curviness, that is, in terms of using this word to describe the female form, whatever that form might be. Has curvy lost all meaning, and if it has, is this a bad thing? (Jezebel's Tracy Moore thinks it is a good thing, in fact.) I agree with Bans that curvy, whether celebratory or not, is falling into a kind of overused meaninglessness, which says more about editors and writers being a wee bit lazy and less about the word itself. But also, does one really need to tack such a word onto a photo of a woman who people can very well see for themselves is shaped the way in which she is? Isn't this consummate to pointing out that so-and-so wore a red dress, when so-and-so is clearly wearing a red dress? Then again, if we don't know what curvy means, maybe it's not, which curves us right back again to the meaninglessness in which the word is now immersed, like so many starlets gallivanting in the ocean waters in retro polka-dot bikinis, showing off their curves. Proposal: Let's use curvy to describe lines, not humans. 

Disrupt. Verb, but with noun and other forms. Developer and writer Matt Langer erupts on disrupt!: "Oh my god will someone PLEASE disrupt the disruptors already? This revolting word has got to go. Because while the past five years or so of startup mania has been insufferable and obnoxious and annoying it's all in all been generally innocuous, mostly just a bunch of well-capitalized B-school bros Ubering around and talking all this big game about 'changing the world' when all they're really doing is masquerading good old fashioned naked greed as some kind hopey-changey photo-sharing app, which: fine, whatever. But this disruption nonsense is actually a genuine, insidious problem, because it has engendered this fierce cult of Now, of The New, this influential school of VC evangelist types pedaling a wrecking ball mentality which dictates that anything not in the process of starting up ought to be kneecapped. Disruption isn't so much a business strategy anymore as it is a knowing sneer, the thinly veiled desire of the aspirationally 1% to just watch it all burn. It's the new first principle of business, which suggests the primary function of business anymore isn't to build things up but to tear them down. Disruption is now an end in itself, and no industry is safe when the sole moral obligation of the disruptor is to disrupt. And so it is that we get for-profit education. Or we get Farhad Manjoo trolling the entire literary world by saying it should celebrate the rise of Amazon and the death of the independent bookstore. And this is all CRAZY! Enough disrupting. Let's get back to 'doing business.'"

Ecosystem. Noun. Pity ecosystem, a case of what happens when good words fall in with a bad crowd. Rebecca Greenfield explains, "This reasonable science-related word has been co-opted by the tech writing community, which has senselessly ravaged it. The true meaning of the term translates to a 'biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.' As in, the place where living things live together. To tech writers, however, ecosystem involves a lot of non-living things that just happen to share characteristics. The Android ecosystem, the app ecosystem, the tablet ecosystem, the digital ecosystem, the start-up ecosystem — it's not like at the end of the day all the little gadgets go home to their gadget neighborhoods and hang out."

Epic. Adjective. Unless you're describing The Iliad or The Odyssey (and in a high school or college English class), choose anew, friends. Don't make me say this again in 2013.

Fiscal Cliff. Noun. Our Dashiell Bennett says, "The fiscal cliff is the worst kind of jargon because it's both inaccurate and unhelpful. America's economy won't suddenly plummet to the bottom of a crevasse on January 1, and even if it were going to, an imaginary rock formation doesn't teach anyone about how budgets are made. [The phrase] is a convenient way to scare people without actually having to tell them what they should be scared of — which is perfect for the majority of people who don't even understand the issues at stake and aren't particularly interested in learning."

Gaffe. Noun with political inclinations. From the Wire's Elspeth Reevegaffe is veering off a semantic cliff: "The definition of a gaffe has been broadened to any time a politician says something you can put in an headline and then write jokes about. A gaffe is a guaranteed two-post story — one on the original comment, and one on the follow-up comment explaining the comment. Reporters' excessive reliance on gaffes to make it through a slow news day was most apparent when a Washington Post reporter was caught on tape yelling across a parking lot to Mitt Romney, "WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES?"

Glocal. Noun? Adjective? What is this, even? Get rid of this word "and all senseless tech start-up jargon because what does that even mean? Nobody knows. Not even the people who use it. Just stop it," says Greenfield.

Hashtag. Seriously, a proper noun askdljflasdjflasdjf;adjlkfa;. Did you hear the one about the parents who named their new baby Hashtag? Yeah, that's about enough of that.

Hehehe. The way a serial killer chuckles. This is a particular spelling of laughter which I personally cannot stand, mostly because it is so very creepy. Don't like LOL or ha ha ha, either? The Atlantic's Megan Garber can help. 

Hipster. Noun. It's gotten so it's boring to decry this term, which makes it even sadder when we see it. Again with the meaninglessness as related to pervasiveness! And yet, it's a dig, too. How can that be? Writer Drew Magary adds, "Hipster has grown into such a widely used pejorative that it doesn't really mean anything anymore. You're just saying 'white person.'"

Historic, historical. Adjective. Dashiell Bennett speaks to the gross overuse of this word, saying, "Every election is historic. Technically, anything that ever happens can become history, so pundits really need to stop throwing this word around anytime they want to make something sound important. It's like that old saying: If everything is special, then nothing is."

INITIAL-WORDS. Usage type. This is not a word, per se, but instead something we do. Writer and "sometime televisualist" Kurt Loder brings it to our attention. "A continuing annoyance, not peculiar to this year, is the prevalence of such prissy formulations as 'the C word' and 'the N word,'" he explains. "When Bill Maher calls a woman a cunt in a public venue, or Quentin Tarantino makes a movie that is distinguished by its wall-to-wall use of the word nigger, these facts should be reported in a straightforward way, however un-PC they may be. I don’t know anyone who uses such words in day-to-day conversation, but we all know they exist. The coy C and N euphemisms (like the laughably juvenile F bomb) are an understandable alternative in family-oriented newspapers and magazines, and, I suppose, on broadcast television. But anyone over the age of, say, 12, likely knows what the letters stand for, and in more worldly outlets —like this one! — is unlikely to be traumatized by having them spelled out. Let’s be real." Related: In 2013, will the New York Times print STFU

INTERNET-HYPE WORDS. Expressions of "internet popularity." The New Yorker's Ben Greenman says, "I do not like words associated with internet popularity: viral, traffic, metrics, and similar examples. I don't like them because they're convulsive. They aim to describe an idea of phenomenon that is impersonally successful: something that reaches large numbers of people without necessarily forging strong relationships with any of them. And then, strangely, those words themselves circulate through the system in the same way as the phenomena they are describing. They are like bloodless blood. To be fair, I'm not sure the words themselves are the problem so much as the thoughts behind them, which suggest that many things are more important than quality and that skimming meaninglessly past the eyes of millions is more important than settling meaningfully into the minds of a few."

Jeah. Expression of douchey enthusiasm. Drew Magary explains: "So Jeah ... Jeah is the 'Jayden' of catchphrases. Ryan Lochte took a normal word ("Yeah") and then EXTREEMIFIED 50% by subbing the J.  Jeah makes me despise the idea of affirming anything.  I don't want to be here when he coins Xamesome and Zadical."

Everyone enter @speedo comp and get a chance to win some speedo gear! #speedoswim #Jeah

— Ryan Lochte (@ryanlochte) December 14, 2012

Kony. Proper noun. Grantland's Rembert Browne traces the evolution of this one for us: "I don't think there's a word that has had so many different life cycles and connotations in one year as the word Kony. The word, the last name of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader responsible for numerous war crimes, was virtually unknown in the mainstream andscape in the beginning of 2012. Then, in March, it became the name of a viral movement, KONY, aimed at taking him down, headed by director Jason Russell. At this point, the word KONY was everywhere. And while the word was a bad thing (the last name of a ruthless leader), the word became word for good (stopping the ruthless dictator). The point of KONY was to stop Kony. But then, a few weeks later, the San Diego police found Russell naked in the street, interfering with traffic, appearing to have completely snapped. And the video of that became the new KONY video. It was at that point that KONY became something bad again, or more a joke of a phrase than an important movement. The buildup to April 20, the date at which all of those around the world that supported KONY were supposed to band together, had been deflated and while not completely dead, the movement was all but over some three weeks after it started. Both KONY and Kony still exist, but as the year comes to a close, both are approaching their pre-2012 levels of importance within the American landscape, which is, again, very little."

Legitimate rape. Adjective-noun clause. "Missouri Rep. Todd Akin used this term in August to explain that in for-real rapes, women can't get pregnant because their bodies reject rapist sperm, and it's the major reason he was unable to defeat Sen. Claire McCaskill in November," remembers Elspeth Reeve. "Akin eventually apologized for both the word legitimate and the fake science. But if you've ever hung out in a frat house or military barracks, you know that he was voicing a common sentiment — that some women 'cry rape' to get back at their boyfriends or husbands. Akin himself suggested that as a state legislator in 1991, when he said he warned a marital rape statute might be used 'in a real messy divorce as a tool and a legal weapon to beat up on the husband.'" Alas, Akin's defeat doesn't mean the phrase and the sentiment behind it haven't continued to exist, though. 

Literally. Adverb. See Sarah Miller's piece for The Awl, Joe Biden, Rob Lowe.

Meggings. Noun. These are "men's tights" and worse than men wearing tights (let 'em wear what they like, we say!) is the horrifying proliferation of the word meggings to describe tights worn by men. One small up-side is that meggings make jeggings sound rather lovely, actually.

Nostalgia. Existential noun. Village Voice web editor Nick Greene waxes nostalgic on nostalgia. "A long time ago, nostalgia was thought to be a medical condition, something so powerful it could cause pyrexic fits or even death. Once people realized you couldn't actually bite the big one from nostalgia, it still was classified as a type of depression. Nowadays, nostalgia is a cheap throwaway word that has lost all its clinical power; it's used to define a trivial pining, be it for a television show cancelled 7 months ago or a broad, complicated construct like 'the '90s. And if you think I am being nostalgic for the former usage of nostalgia, then you are part of the problem."

October. Noun, month, alleged friend of Drake. While I like this month and the sound of it, our Connor Simpson does not. He says, specifically, his dislike is for "October, as occupied by Drake. He calls himself 'October's very own' and it's the stupidest thing ever. Also the month. October is the first official, real month of fall, and fall is not summer. October is a close second to February as the worst month."

Organically. Adverb. Did you think of those thoughts all in your own brain? And in doing so, did you dub whatever emerged as having come to you organically? This is a pretentious word that too often means one is avoiding the effort it takes to come up with a word that means what one really intends it to mean.

Ping. Verb. Gizmodo's Sam Biddle despises this word, saying "I hate ping because it means the exact same thing as contact. There's no difference between ping and contact. But when we say ping, we can pretend like we're in a scene from The Social Network, when in fact we're just regular idiots like everyone else. It's also too ambiguous—if someone asks me to ping them, do I text, call, ring a bell in their face? I hate ambiguity in language." Do not ping me. Do not dare. 

Plus-one (+1).  Vote of digital support. This one from The Atlantic's social media editor Chris Heller, who believes that "+1" is the scourge of Twitter. "You can't go far without seeing the filthy little thing attached to puns, hashtag games, and all the other sorts of frivolous ephemera," he says. "It's a lazy acknowledgement that someone out there did something entertaining, but it's also a not-so-ironic admission that we're all stuck in the same sad, sorry game of 'personal brands' and egotistical nonsense. Nobody's counting your stupid Internet points. Stop the '+1' menace."

PORTMANTEAUXING. Usage type. Not all portmanteauxing is bad, just like not all portmanteaus are bad. But simply smashing two words together and thinking it's all funny and brilliant and original, that's a word-making style whose shark has been jumped (shumped?) in 2012.  

Quinoa. Healthy food noun. And yet, at the same time, unknown! New York's Stefan Becket says, "I'm not a fan of quinoa. I'm not entirely clear what it actually is and I have no idea what it tastes like, but it sounds like some bland hipster thing."

Really?! Expression of incredulity. The New York Times' Neil Genzlinger decided people were saying really? too much on television, and wrote about it. Jerry Seinfeld decided Neil Genzlinger's piece was "so deeply vacuous that I couldn’t help but feel that you have stepped into my area of expertise," and responded in a letter to the New York Times with numerous Reallys? of his own. This was all fun and games, an afternoon of amusement, but, really? Are we still saying really? We really are, apparently.

"Retweets are not endorsements." Banal assertion. I agree with Cord Jefferson that this phrasing is deplorable and should be erased from our collective word consciousness.

Selfies. Plural noun. It's the sound of this word that bugs me so much. But also, what is a selfy? It seems ominous and vaguely perverse, so you don't really want to know, but then you do, and it doesn't really matter what it is because it turns out it's rather boring, in fact. And yet that word, which stands for taking pictures of oneself, hilariously, is so meta and naval-gazing that it would very nearly be perfect if we didn't dislike it so very much.  

Slacks. Noun used by our elders. Personally, I don't mind this word and in fact rather like it (not that I own any of my own) but the New Yorker voted to ban it for a brief time this year, so we're including it for posterity.

Slut. Noun used to convey judgment, mostly by terrible people. See the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy of early 2012. 

Sustainable. Adjective. Drew Magary weighs in again: "As for sustainable... I don't care.  I really don't.  Sustainable is the kind of word that ends up being co-opted and used by everyone to the point where it means nothing (See: Organic). I don't believe anyone when they tell me their food is sustainable.  I think half of them lie just so they can convince me they didn't buy their chicken breast at the local Key Food. Sustainable is just an invitation for hipsters to lie."

Twee. Wee wittle 'dorable adjective. Among the twee-haters there is New York's Stefan Becket, who says, "My first thought is always that it's supposed to be tweet, and then I'm disappointed when it ends up describing something terrible," he says. Related: the twee-est word relating to tweeting is tweeps, which I cannot stand. Love the people, hate the name.

TLDY. Acronym used by the weary and disaffected. The shortening of several words that are admittedly difficult to concentrate long enough to spell out, this is my vote for the Internet's worst comment, and it means Too Long, Didn't Read. (Thanks for commenting, though!)

Ugh. Guttural sound to denote unpleasant emotion. A powerful word, true, because it makes one feel exactly what it is, but every time I see this one I feel a little bit crankier. Can't we muster legitimate words for human expression? Ugh. I guess not. 

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Vagina. Noun. Esquire's Ross McCammon calls out the way people have been using this word for the female anatomy as a punchline or joke. He says, "No word has been more abused this year. It's persisted as an easy punchline on bad sitcoms. The vagina is many things but it shouldn't be the butt of a joke. Then it appears as the title of Naomi Wolf's book, which gets widely mocked. Tough year for vagina."

Whatever Whatever. An expression we are using, apparently. Francesca Stabile, who works in the music industry (where such expressions run amok!), explains, "If the brains behind @SeinfeldToday wanted an update to the Yada Yada Yada episode they'd be smart to choose this latest verbal tick (that is, if their internet shelf life hasn't expired already, which I'm afraid it might have). I've noticed it more and more as a way of glossing over the boring parts of a tale or rendering something unimportant, but while yada yada yada was more amiable and had excellent mouthfeel, whatever whatever comes off as supremely dismissive."

X. Usage type. Spelling anything with just an X when it should be spelled out. Like, X-cellent. X-citing. X-uberant. X-it. As seen in tXt messgs.

YOLO. Soul-searching, soul-sucking acronym. YOLO is probably the most disliked word among the groups I surveyed for this post. Merriam-Webster's Kory Stamper says it best, prefacing her opinion with this disclaimer: "As a lexicographer, I must withhold judgment on any word, either established or in-the-making. Words are raw materials and each has its place and purpose; some people find eggs to be slimy and gross, yet they will happily eat them when they're incorporated into a cake. Even moist, which seems to get the brunt of the word-hate, has its place."

YOLO-haters, hang in there, there's a but! "But lexicographers are human, and humans have deeply felt emotions and opinions (or so I'm told)," she continues. "So speaking as a human, I'm pretty over YOLO, particularly when used by my kids in answer to 'Why haven't you done [tedious chore] yet?' Intellectually, I recognize that YOLO is a perfectly fine initialism and may gain enough currency and longevity in print to merit entry into one of our dictionaries — but the heart wants what it wants. My apologies to Drake, apparent coiner of YOLO, and Ben Zimmer, my favorite YOLO apologist."

Zero, Inbox. State of email-being. NYU Local editor and Gawker writer Myles Tanzer closes us out for the year with this one, which has been the cause of some discussion on this very site recently. Spoiler: He hates it. "Zero, as in inbox zero, is really pathetic. For those fortunate ones who are blissfully ignorant to 2012's worst humblebrag, inbox zero is the process of getting your unread emails down to nil to ensure you have a more stable existence," he says. "Most email scrubbers tweet 'inbox zero!' to the world when they are done with their chore, which has all the charms of a toothless first grader tugging at his mom's pant leg and wailing, 'I cleaned my room!' By subscribing to the compulsive impulse to get away from the junk in our inboxes, you're you're committing the worst sin of 2012 — letting technology control your life. A real Internet pro works seamlessly with the messiness that comes with being glued to the screen. Also, the concept of inbox zero is a slippery slope that strikes fear into my heart. Is outbox zero the next thing that we deem necessary to brag about? Is there an impending movement to show off that all of your scheduled Tumblr posts for the day have autoposted? Where does the clutter clearance end? In 2013, I'd like to see less showboating about the way we shoo away emails like dirty flies and more tweets showcasing our inboxes being filled to capacity. Inbox one million has a way better ring to it, anyways."

All in all, it was a very good (bad?) word year. Disclaimer: Simply because a word appears above does not mean we will cease to use it. That's just the way the word world works.

Image via Shutterstock by Creativa.

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