Why Tergiversate Is Our 2011 Word of the Year

There are essentially two ways to pick a “word of the year.” One common approach is to select from words whose common usage reflects some quality of the year past. Expect to see “occupy,” “winning,” etc., on many selections this December. Another way involves actually using the dictionary. Is there a word that captures the character of 2011, regardless of its popularity or ubiquity?

In late October, we asked our Facebook fans which method of selection they preferred. Almost 7 out of the 10 of them said it should be a word that aptly defines the spirit of 2011, even if the choice is obscure. We like to listen to our ardent supporters.

Just as you come to Dictionary.com in order to find the precise word you need, we spelunked through our corpus to find that perfect fit for 2011. And so we chose tergiversate, a rare word that means “to change repeatedly one’s attitude or opinions with respect to a cause, subject, etc.; equivocate.” The stock market, politicians and even public opinion polls have tergiversated all year long. Tergiversate is derived from the Latin word “vertere,” to turn. It shares a root with the words “verse” and “versus.” Can’t figure out how to pronounce it? Check out the audio pronunciation. One could say that events in Tahrir Square continue to tergiversate as sharply now as they did in the spring.

Here are a few examples of how the word has turned up in the press. On August 20th, 2011, in The Times of London, Oliver Kamm said, “The tergiversations of stock markets are often puzzling from the outside. They’re no less puzzling from within.” In September, the Baltimore Sun picked tergiversation as its word of the week. Last year in May of 2010, James Surowecki, a staff writer for the New Yorker, used the word to describe German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s economic choices: “Political risk is hard to manage because so much comes down to the personal choices of policymakers, whether prime ministers or heads of central banks. And those choices aren’t always going to be economically rational—witness Merkel’s recent tergiversations.”

To choose a word like “occupy,” “Arab Spring,” or “austerity” would be an evaluation of events from our narrow vantage. We do not yet know what the impact of these events will be on a historical scale, whether there will be any long-term change as a result of the Occupy movement or whether democracy has finally come to the Middle East.

Another way to honor the year in a single word would be to pick a neologism. This year a few words were coined. The New York Times described the “pinking” of America, or the spread of breast cancer awareness through the emblem the color pink. Football hero Tim Tebow unknowingly started a craze: tebowing. To tebow is to kneel on one knee with your hand on your forehead and pray, while everyone around you is doing something else. Fans saw him do this during a game and mimicked it. The results have been an internet sensation, but you won’t yet find the word in our dictionary. More recently, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry created the malapropism “forewithal” to describe how countries should respond to the global financial crisis. The word seems to be a combination of fortitude and wherewithal.

To be candid, there was a very close runner-up for the Word of the Year. When we learned that the word “insidious” originally came from the Latin word insidere which meant “to sit on, occupy,” we nearly chose this dark term. The word insidious attracted attention when the horror film Insidious came out in April of this year, and the term is constantly in the news: insidious diseases, the insidious super-committee, an insidious assault. The word encapsulates a feeling that seems to pervade 2011: “proceeding in a seemingly harmless way but actually with grave effect.” Ultimately, though, insidious is too negative to represent the mood of change and transformation that has marked this year as well.

Words of the moment and clever coinages are great fun, but tergiversate continues to resonate across a variety of experiences from the past year. Do you agree? Let us know what you think of our choice and whether we’ve overlooked other candidates.

Why was privacy our 2013 Word of the Year?

Why was bluster our 2012 Word of the Year?