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13 Words of the Year from Other Countries

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You've heard about selfie, science, and because. But we aren't the only ones who like to try to capture the spirit of the year in a word. Here are some Words of the Year chosen by 13 other countries.

1. Sakte-tv, Norway

The Language Council in Norway chose sakte-tv (slow-TV), reflecting the popularity of shows like "National Wood Fire Night," a four hour discussion of firewood followed by an eight hour broadcast of a crackling fire. Some of the good competitors were rekkeviddeangst (range anxiety)—the fear that the battery of your electric car will run out before you can get to a charging station—and revelyd (fox sound) because, of course, Ylvis.

2. Gubbploga, Sweden

The Swedish Language Council takes an egalitarian, Swedish approach to the word of the year, releasing a list of the year's new Swedish words without declaring a winner. I like the sound of gubbploga (old man plowing), which refers to criticism of snow plowing priorities that put male-dominated workplace routes over bus and bike lanes and schools. Another good one was nagelprotest (nail protest) for the practice of painting your nails in the name of a cause—for instance, getting a rainbow manicure as a statement against Russian anti-gay laws.

3. Undskyld, Denmark

A member of the Danish Language Council, along with the hosts of the "Language Laboratory" radio show, chose undskyld (sorry) as Word of the Year, making specific reference to the apology a politician had to make after his luxury travel expenses were revealed. It won out over some familiar choices like twerk, selfie, and lårhul (thigh gap) but also gastroseksuel (gastrosexual, for food lovers) and kønskrans ("gender wreath"), a proposed substitute for jomfruhinde (hymen, or "virgin barrier").

4. GroKo, Germany

GroKo is short for Große Koalition (Grand Coalition), an agreement between the conservative and center-left political parties in the German parliament that was hammered out over a long period of negotiation. It suggests the word Kroko, meaning Crocodile, which according to the Word of the Year judges at the Association for the German Language, captures a half-mocking attitude toward the whole negotiation process. It beat out big data, Protz-Bischof (bling bishop, referring to a scandal in which a bishop spent millions on new digs), and freund hört mit (friends are listening), a play on the Nazis' wartime anti-spy slogan "feind hört mit" (enemies are listening), referring to revelations about NSA surveillance.

5. Selfie, Netherlands

Selfie was the Dutch Word of the Year in the Netherlands, according to dictionary publisher Van Dale. Twerken won the Youth Language category, and scheefwerken (skewed work) won the Lifestyle category. It means work that's below one's training or experience level, something a lot of people have had to settle for in recent years. Winners in other categories included some good Dutch compounds like hooliganheffing (proposed hooligan tax on soccer clubs to pay to offset police workload during games) and participatiesamenleving (participatory society).

6. Selfie, Belgium

Selfie also won for Belgium, even though it isn't a very Flemish word. Nor is swag, the winner in the Youth Language category, or duckface, the winner in Lifestyle.

7. Escrache, Spain

In Spain, the newspaper El Mundo named an importation from South America, escrache, the Word of the Year. It refers to a protest against corruption where people gather to denounce a politician or public figure outside their home or workplace. It comes from the Argentinian verb escrachar (publicly expose) and was first used during investigation of the crimes of the dictatorship there. It was used in Spain this year to refer to protests having to do with the mortgage crisis. The economic crisis was reflected in many of the other candidates, such as copago (copayment for access to public health care), quita ("remove" in the context of debt forgiveness), and austericidio (austericide, or suicide by austerity). It wasn't all doom and gloom. Selfie made the list there too, but in Spanish it's autofoto.

8. Bombeiro, Portugal

A poll by publisher Porto Editora selected bombeiro (firefighter) as the Word of the Year. It honors the firefighters who had to battle the raging wildfires that consumed forests in southern Portugal over the summer.

9. Plénior, France

Plénior was selected at the XYZ Festival of New Words in Le Havre. It refers to a senior who's living life to the fullest, a blend of pleine (full) and senior. The way it puts an enthusiastic, positive spin on things doesn't seem very French, but good for you, plénoirs! Enjoy yourselves!

10. Fáng 房, China

In China, a group of government organizations choose the Character of the Year. This year's choice was fáng 房, which occurs in words having to do with housing. Appropriate for a year in which a housing crisis and a real estate bubble factored prominently.

11. Mái 霾, Singapore

In the poll conducted by Lianhe Zaobao, the Chinese language newspaper in Singapore, the word mái 霾, meaning haze, won with 130,000 votes, beating out words like tān 贪 (greed) and wǎng 网 (internet). Some of the highest pollution levels ever recorded occurred there this year. When there's more haze around you than either greed or internet, you know you're in trouble.

12. Jiǎ 假, Taiwan

The winner of a poll by the Taiwanese newspaper United Daily News was jiǎ 假 (fake), inspired by frequent news about fake products and food safety scandals.

13. Rin 輪, Japan

The Kanji of the Year contest is sponsored by the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society. This year's winner was rin (or wa) 輪. The character means “ring” and is used in the word for the Olympic Games, gorin 五輪 (literally, “five rings”). The main reason for this choice was the selection of Tokyo as host of the 2020 Summer Olympics. But a number of other reasons were cited, including the hope that the “'circle of support' for the recovery of areas impacted by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami will expand."

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]


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