I am always fascinated by the evolution of language and so it was a delight to see the Oxford English Dictionary proclaiming the word “omnishambles” as the word of the year for 2012.
What is always interesting to me is how the judges of panels deciding such things come to choose the eventual winner. What was it that made omnishambles a better word in the judges’ eyes than some of the other contenders including “pleb”, “mobot”, “mummy porn” or “yolo”?
According to the BBC, lexicographer Fiona McPherson said: “It was a word everyone liked, which seemed to sum up so many of the events over the last 366 days in a beautiful way.” Whilst this is perfectly fitting in some ways, it’s not an especially scientific method of determining how important omnishambles has become in our language.
Using our search data I decided to chart the popularity of some of the top contenders for word of the year over the course of 2012. This would provide some grounding to the popularity and general usage of these words in Britain this year.
A few things become immediately apparent form the graph above. Firstly, as a word “omnishambles” was the least popular of the five contenders monitored, and so from a general usage perspective was not nearly as strong or as well known as the others.
Secondly, “pleb” and “mobot” had isolated spikes of interest which came as the result of media hype. Pleb became the 19th most searched for non-branded term in the UK and the 376th most searched for term overall in the week that Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell allegedly used it to describe police officers in Downing Street. Meanwhile “mobot” had a couple of weeks of popularity after Mo Farah won two gold medals in the Olympic Games in August.
One word which stood out as the true word of the year from a search perspective was “yolo”. An acronym for “You Only Live Once” that has been popularised by celebrities such as Zac Efron, this is the only word that has shown both significant search volume and a degree of longevity during the year.
Why is any of this important? In some ways this is a trivial example which doesn’t have any great bearing on the world. However, what this example highlights is how the opinions of selected experts can differ wildly to the wisdom of the crowds. Omnishambles may well be the chosen word of the expert lexicographers, but yolo is the people’s choice, searched for consistently by millions of Internet users every day. Search behaviour is one of the most reliable barometers of what the population is thinking at any given time. Using this data to understand who your customers are and how you can engage with them is an invaluable, and moreover is far more comprehensive and representative than a sample of experts.
To my mind although omnishambles is indeed a great word, yolo has been unfairly overlooked by the OED.