From bigoted to vuvuzela: this year’s buzzwords


What a year for the political memoir! The offerings included The Third Man (or "Show Me the Money") by Peter Mandelson; Decision Points ("Bad Decisions") by George W Bush; and 22 Days in May ("Just Before I Lost My Job") by David Laws. And that's not even mentioning the giant: Tony Blair's A Journey, which was downgraded from The Journey when its ever-modest author finally accepted that his was not the definitive journey of all time.

But what a journey it was: from Cherie to Iraq, with a stop-off at the best line of the book: "I like to have time and comfort in the loo."


Before the election, everyone who was anyone was a progressive: Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all clung to the word, each claiming to be more progressive than the other. (Cameron actually said: "We are the true progressives now.") But, soon enough, one was retreating from Downing Street to curl up in Fife and rewrite history and the other two had formed an unholy alliance, unleashing the harshest economic programme in generations. Some progress.


Once upon a time, Nick Clegg was loved. Cleggmania seems strange now - as distant as a memory of a dream. As is the way with mania, however, at the time it appeared to be the purest truth. Clegg was full of earnest pledges and he spoke for progress and the people. He was also very good at speaking to people, locking television audiences with that spaniel-eyed gaze. But the mania, typically, didn't last long. The soaring high collapsed into depression and Clegg was an effigy by Christmas.

Double dip

Waiting for the double-dip recession was like waiting for Godot. So much talk. We should be grateful, of course, that it hasn't arrived - but everyone feels a bit embarrassed after banging on about its imminent arrival. Still, never say never. In the meantime, let us remember with respect
and tender nostalgia the original Double Dip: Ireland's bestselling sweet in 1989.


Did she mean "refute"? Or "repudiate"? We will never know. But Sarah Palin, a master of screeching self-publicity, turned it to her advantage, tweeting that "Shakespeare liked to coin new words, too!" - and so comparing herself to the greatest playwright in the world ever. It was named the word of the year by the Oxford American Dictionary (beating off rivals such as "gleek", meaning a fan of the television series Glee, and "retweet").
After that achievement, I can't think why she would want to run for president. Rest on your laurels, Sarah . . . and leave us in peace.

Big society

Can you tell what it is yet? The "big society" makes me think of the artist Rolf Harris and his random brushstrokes that eventually turn into something you understand. But this hasn't quite happened yet: we are all still gazing at the big society, our heads tipped to one side, eyes narrowed, wondering what on earth it could be.


Of the gaffes, this was the greatest. Who can forget the crumpled Gordon, with eye bags the size of boxing gloves, describing Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman" and then having to drink apologetic, desperate tea with her while the media camped in her garden? Such a small word - but when it was muttered into a forgotten Sky News microphone, it seemed to seal his fate.

Top kill

The names for ways of stopping the leak after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion were like something out of a gaming fantasy ("top kill", "junk shot", "top hat"). Then you remembered that this was one of the worst oil spills in history. The techniques themselves sounded oddly simple ("Put a big dome over it"; "Jam it up with stuff") but it took three months to cap the leak and, by the time it was done, 205 million gallons of crude oil had seeped into the Gulf of Mexico.


Noisy! That was the vuvuzela, the soundtrack to the World Cup and a source of irritation to commentators who like their voices heard above all things.
But, in many ways, it was the tournament's most entertaining element (apart from the French team, whose tantrums provided an excellent distraction from England's inability to engage with the purpose of the exercise: namely, winning football games).


It was so very hard to say. Everything about the Icelandic volcano was difficult: the way it disrupted our holidays, flying schedules and profit margins (much to the fury of Ryanair's Michael O'Leary). But, to me, that makes the unpronounceable volcano a contender for unlikely hero of the year, reminding us all that nature can be bigger than we are (if we don't destroy her first).


Poor Barack Obama. Two years ago, Obama-related words of the year would have included "hope", "change" and "demigod". Today, what most readily springs to mind is "shellacking", his own term for the defeat suffered by the Democrats in the midterm elections in November. It comes from "shellac", a resin used for polishing. The word is now mostly used in sport and means - in the "pasting" vein - to have suffered a comprehensive loss.


A late entry - and a mistaken one: it was never meant to be said. But for all those who had been secretly praying for some plain speaking about the coalition on Radio 4, the presenter James Naughtie's word tangle with "Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary" came as a welcome surprise over the Kellogg's Crunchy Nut. l

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special