The Oxford Dictionaries’ “Words of the Year” (one U.K., one U.S.) have just been announced. They are, respectively, omnishambles and gif—or, rather, GIF, since it’s an acronym (of “graphics interchange format”). Neither seems earth-shaking. The fact is that the whole Word of the Year thing is largely a publicity stunt—it’s about trendiness rather than a genuine attempt to analyze what words may have had or will have a lasting impact on society. Most of the other candidates seem even less worthy of memorializing—how long will Eurogeddon, Mobot or Games maker be remembered? Or, in the case of the American possibles, malarkey and Romnesia? And let’s hope that job creator dies the quick but horrible death it deserves.
Omnishambles at least is new, unlike gif. It was coined in 2009 for an episode of the British comedy TV series The Thick of It, a satire of modern government that the its creator describes as “Yes, Minister meets Larry Sanders. “It’s a bizarre accolade,” says the writer responsible, Tony Roche. “One that makes this random noun sound like it is about to do a photoshoot for FHM magazine and start dating Katy Perry before developing a drug problem, going into rehab and appearing on I’m a Celebrity Word… Get Me Out of Here.” Earlier this year, the Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, used omnishambles to describe the government’s budget, and things mushroomed from there. OUP defines it as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations”—such as, for instance, the ongoing awful mess that the BBC finds itself in. The word actually seems to have had a more interesting life in its extensions: Romneyshambles—then U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s series of foot-in-mouth episodes on his foreign tour this summer, designed to suggest his readiness to be president—and there have been Unishambles, Scomnishambles (a shambles in Scotland, apparently), etc.
So what’s the problem? First, there’s another relatively recent word that essentially means the same thing and suggests it more vividly: clusterfuck—originally a military term, now a general one, for an operation where a whole bunch of things have gone wrong. Although I suppose one reason it isn’t up there with omnishambles is that you can’t run it in a family newspaper. Second, and more basic: what’s wrong with good old shambles (it means a slaughterhouse originally, by the way)? Definition: “a scene or state of great destruction, disorder or confusion.” As far as I’m concerned, omnishambles merely gilds the shambles lily.
As for gif, or GIF, this is a word that’s been around since the 1980s! Before it became the name for one of those flashing animated pictures that repeats the same captured second or two over and over again, it was (and still is) a type of computer picture file, like tiffs and jpegs. The difference with Oxford’s choice? They’ve picked it as a verb—to describe the act of creating a GIF. Have you ever used it that way? Are you in the habit of giffing? I thought not. Even Oxford said in its press release, “GIF is currently recognized and defined by Oxford Dictionaries Online as a noun. If the verbal use of GIF gains sufficient currency, it will be considered for inclusion in the future.” A likely story. Oh, and! They even suggest that it’s permissible to pronounce GIF with a soft g—i.e., as in Jif peanut butter. But it’s ghif, as in “gift!” Don’t let OUP or anyone else tell you different.
In Slate, Katy Waldman points out that the American Dialect Society, which also looks at new words it considers important, has a much better record on choosing culturally significant terms. Its 2011 pick was occupy—which has a potentially endless life, as the Occupy Sandy volunteers demonstrated when they came out to help after the recent hurricane; 2010 was app, 2009 was tweet. And their word of the decade: google, of course. GIF indeed.—TAMARA GLENNY