At its annual meeting last January, the American Dialect Society named a new chair of its New Words Committee: Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and until recently the On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine. As part of his duties, Zimmer will take the helm of “Among the New Words,” a long-running department in American Speech, the quarterly journal of the ADS published by Duke University Press. Zimmer will also oversee the selection of the ADS Word of the Year, an announcement that attracts extensive media attention.
There follows a column by Ben, the conclusion of which I’ll quote here:
In my first installment of “Among the New Words” (to appear in the June issue of American Speech) I will be surveying the various nominees for 2010 Word of the Year, including subcategories such as Most Euphemistic, Most Likely to Succeed, and Most Outrageous. In the main category, app beat out another three-letter word: nom, an onomatopoetic form suggesting pleasurable eating, used as an interjection, noun or verb. Nom traveled from Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster (whose voracious noises are often represented as “om nom nom nom”) to the online images known as “lolcats,” and on to wider usage thanks in part to Twitter.
I suspect Bolinger would have appreciated the earthy joys of nom. After all, in a 1940 article in American Speech, Bolinger observed how imitative expressions like humph, ahem, pish, and tsk often get turned into “real words” by “pronouncing them as spelled rather than articulating the sounds they were intended to represent.” And among the first batch of neologisms he provided for “Among the New Words” the following year was none other than burp — like nom, a kind of digestive onomatopoeia that can be pressed into service as a noun or verb. Plus ça change!
I think I was in my late teens before I realized that tsk was not intended to be pronounced “tisk.”