Squeezed Middle

This might seem a bit rich coming from someone who writes a column about words every week, but really, the Oxford English Dictionary's annual exercise of picking a "word of the year" is a ludicrous waste of time. Journalism is supposed to be a waste of time, mine and yours. But the dictionary! Come on, the dictionary should be a place of serious intent, of scholarship, the protector of our great language.

Instead the OED cooks up a PR exercise around this time every year and nominates its word of the previous 11 months (what if something massive happens in the world of words in December, eh OED, what then?) This year its choice is "squeezed middle". It's been widely pointed out that there is a minor problem here - only a small thing, you'd hardly notice, really not a big deal - but, like last year when they opted for "big society", it's, um, two words. In some circles, you might call that a phrase. It's not even hyphenated, for God's sake.

And what do those two choices tell you about the folks at the OED? Well, first up, that they take us for dumbos. "Ooh, the big society, that'll get us written about, it being a political idea and all," they must have thought. The OED's public-affairs bloke perhaps suggested they have a Labour idea this year after going Tory last time round. The OED, after all, must not be seen to be partisan (at this point I think the OED team collectively forgot that they work for a dictionary and that no one minds about their politics as much as the quality of their definitions. And judging by the fact that they can't distinguish between a word and a phrase I'm not holding out significant hope on that front).

PR exercises are generally irritating, but this one, for some reason, is especially so. Why not make the word of the year something beautiful ("revolution") or urgent ("occupy"). Squeezed middle, after all, is even worse than a phrase - it's a focus-grouped slogan, the work of a political machine, a speechwriter's shorthand. I say all that while agreeing with the concept and the problem it diagnoses - that's not the point. The
point is that slogans are an abuse of innocent words. And the OED, of all places, should know better.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral