Rizz up your grammar with 2023's 'words of the year' | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Rizz up your grammar with 2023's 'words of the year' 

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In awarding this year's Nobel Literature Prize to Jon Fosse, the Nobel committee cited the Norwegian writer's "sensitive language that probes the limits of words."

I'm not familiar with Fosse's work—and I don't know exactly what the Nobel committee had in mind—but there is no doubt that words have limitations. But because we take words for granted, their limits are mostly overlooked.

Who but wordsmiths take note of verbing and other mutations? Or of words flaming out like meteors? Or of words worn thin by overuse? Who reminds us that what was once "groovy" is now "rad"? (Back in the groovy times, "software" was unheard of and "hardware" applied to bolts, screws and nails.)

Writing the roughly 900 words of this column is like dry-stacking a stone wall. Without mortar, rocks of all sizes and shapes must interlock, just so. Wobbly stones doom a wall.

Similarly, a paragraph is a construct of words that fit together snugly. If the right words aren't in the right place, if they wobble, the sentences don't work. The higher the wall—or the more complex the subject—the greater the effort required.

It took a Bloomberg columnist 40,000 words to explain "cryptocurrency." Bill Clinton used words to wall off the scandal of an Oval Office tryst: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he dissembled.

Probing the limits of particular words is an exercise to put off until the crops are in. For present purposes, however, this autobiographical sentence sets up "scone" and "Coke" for examination: On Friday night, we sometimes walked to VaLora's on 2100 South, where my lawn-mowing wages bought a scone and a cherry Coke.

VaLora's is decades gone, but owing to the hours my friends and I spent there, I know "scone" denotes a deep-fried, puffed-up slab of bread dough—offered today at Penny Ann's Cafe or Sharon's Café—served hot, with honey and butter. However, order a scone in any eatery outside of Utah and you get a baked, biscuit-y confection—a dense pastry like the kind Starbucks sells.

At the heart of the disparity is geography. Place is a limiting factor, with "scone" being the "closest thing to a truly unique word in the vocabulary of Utah," writes David Eddington in his new book Utah English.

However, when it comes to a nonalcoholic, carbonated beverage, Utahns have at least a half-dozen words to choose from, according to Eddington—"soda," "pop," "Coke," "soft drink," "seltzer" and "soda pop."

Even so, the hands-down preference is "soda," just as it is on both coasts.

In Utah, "soda" has gradually eclipsed "pop" in the last 25 years. (No one orders a "dirty pop" or "dirty soft drink," do they?) Words like "soda" and "pop" are words in flux. So are personal pronouns like "they." "Woke" has morphed from a hip-hop lyric to the polemics of Ron DeSantis in 15 years. The definitions of more than 2,250 words were revised last year, according to Dictionary.com.

Such messing around with words is best done in December when the dictionary companies announce the Word of the Year (WOTY). The selections are based on the number of lookups on the dictionaries' websites and apps.

I look forward to the new words each year because they freeze-frame America's evolving culture. In announcing the top words, the Oxford Dictionary said that they reflected the country's "ethos, mood or preoccupations" while showing "potential as a term of lasting cultural significance."

The Oxford Dictionary estimates English has a lexicon of about 170,000 words. As many as 47,000 have succumbed to their limitations and disappeared into obsolescence. Dictionary.com reported 566 words coined in 2023. "Authentic" was not one, but it was Merriam-Webster's pick for WOTY.

It is a familiar adjective. It has been in service of the genuine and the unpretentious for many years. (The contempt of Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield for "phoniness" dates to the 1940s.) The authentic self is at risk in the social media arena. Even Elon Musk thinks so. He recently called on world leaders "to speak in their authentic voice as opposed to how they think they should speak."

No surprise that "AI," or artificial intelligence, was chosen as a WOTY, by Collins Dictionary. More interesting was the choice of an AI-related verb, "hallucinate," by both Cambridge University Press and Dictionary.com. It refers to a flawed AI response to a human's prompt.

But "Rizz," a derivative of "charismatic," was picked by Oxford Dictionary as the year's most significant word. The sibilant noun is defined as "style, charm or attractiveness (to potential romantic partners)."

It seems to be taking root. It was a runner-up WOTY last year, and it now has taken on a verb dimension as in: "Bill Clinton was rizzed up by Monica Lewinsky."

"Rizz" had plenty of competition. The WOTY selection process left dozens of runners-up on the field. This year's batch includes "situationship," "de-influencing," "parasocial," "beige flag" and "Swiftie."

I was surprised that "Swiftie" didn't dominate. Taylor Swift's Eras Tour had rizz.

At press time, the American Dialect Society is still accepting nominations for a 2023 WOTY "from across the lexically inclined world and beyond." I toyed with the idea of submitting "The Utah Way," the sunny slogan in which Utah's ruling class loves to bask. As they break into a chorus of "Kumbaya," however, hypocrisy is busily at work behind the scenes.

I wanted my WOTY to point it out. I considered "Utah Aweigh" before settling on "The Utah Wayward." The latter establishes a category for the Republican pols who test the limits of self-interest with a smile, a shoeshine and a MAGA hat.

Private Eye is off this week. Send feedback to comments@cityweekly.net

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