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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Top Buzz Words of 2012

10. Peplum

The fashion world is full of silly-sounding terms that are rarely used outside style columns: full-hipped jodhpurs, puffball hems, mini-shifts. But one such stitch of sartorial vocab made it mainstream this year. A peplum is a short skirt-like addition to a garment that flares from the waist. It became a theme in fashion reviews toward the end of last year and has kept popping up throughout 2012. “Spring’s hearty embrace of the peplum,” wrote the New York Times in February, “means full curves ahead.” The peplum made “must-have” lists in summer and fall, while style icons, including the all-important Kate Middleton, wore them in public. In November, designer Vera Wang said the accent was part of a romantic yet structured “revival of femininity” coming to the hoi polloi this spring. (So if you haven’t had a chance to casually compliment someone on their peplum, there’s still time.

9. Selfie

People have been taking photos of themselves and sharing them with friends, family and Internet strangers for years. Yet it wasn’t until 2012 that a name for these self-portraits, typically made to post on a social networking website (or send in a text message), really hit the big time. Selfies are often snapped at odd angles with smartphones and include some part of the photographer’s arm. The crowd-sourced definition for selfie, courtesy of Urban Dictionary, includes a helpful note: “A selfie is usually accompanied by a kissy face or the individual looking in a direction that is not towards the camera.” A so-called “hipster selfie,” one that strays from mainstream practices, may not even feature the person’s face at all—perhaps because it’s eclipsed by the old-fashioned camera he or she used to take the portrait in a mirror.

8. Derecho

Weather-related events produced plenty of buzzwords this year, from a supermoon in May to a superstorm in October. A particularly memorable term to suddenly invade our lexicons was derecho (pronounced deh-REH-choh). A derecho is a powerful windstorm that can blow gusts up to 130 mph. At the end of June, a derecho swept from Chicago to the Atlantic Ocean amid thunder and rain, leaving millions of people without power during a summer heat wave. The word means direct in Spanish, a reference to the straight lines of wind damage the storms leave behind; according to the government’s Storm Prediction Center, the physics professor who coined the term in 1888 chose derecho to complement tornado, which he associated with the Spanish word for to turn.

7. Muppet

No, not the adorable puppets designed by Jim Henson. On March 14, a business executive named Greg Smith wrote a juicy op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.” In it, he reeled off alleged examples of how “toxic and destructive” the culture at the investment firm had become. “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” Smith wrote. “Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets.’” This is muppet in the British sense—slang simply meaning that someone is a fool—and the novel use of the word enthralled Americans almost as much as Smith’s public rejection of Wall-Street heartlessness. The media called fallout from the op-ed “Muppetgate,” and when Smith released a poorly received book on the same topic later in the year, some took to calling the author himself a muppet. (Full disclosure: Smith also recently wrote a column for TIME.

6. Pink Slime

In March, news outlets sunk their teeth into an unappetizing topic: so-called “pink slime.” Pink slime is a nickname for “lean finely textured beef,” a low-fat, ammonia-treated filler used in processed meats. A former government microbiologist coined the term in a 2002 email. When reporters, spearheaded by ABC News, put pink slime in headlines this year—at a time when consumers are obsessed with all-natural foods—there was enormous backlash. Grocery stores dropped meats that included the product and put out signs saying they didn’t sell “pink slime.” Fast-food chains promised patrons they didn’t use the filler in burgers or tacos. More than 200,000 people signed an online petition demanding that pink slime be banned from school lunches, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture created an opt-out program. Americans have eaten the product for decades, and there were questions about whether the backlash was overblown. Still, there’s no question that the ewww-inducing moniker drove the controversy.


This year, YOLO was the type of slang parents could use to really humiliate their teenage children. The acronym for “You Only Live Once” was popularized by rapper Drake in his song “The Motto” and actor Zac Efron, who had “YOLO” tattooed on his hand. “Every now and then, a bit of slang comes along that draws a bright red line between young and old,” linguist Ben Zimmer wrote in August. “In 2012, that slang term is YOLO.” The meaning is something like carpe diem, though young people also use it to jokingly justify poor decisions, particularly those that seem to yield instant gratification. (Like, say, getting blackout drunk.) The word came into the year trendy and got stale by the end, though YOLO is far from exhausting its ironic-usage phase. As in, “Yeah, I decided to just not wear my pocket protector today. YOLO.”

4. Linsanity

The number-one inspiration for puns this year had to be basketball player Jeremy Lin. In early February, the devoutly Christian, Ivy League-educated, Asian-American point guard for the New York Knicks went from benchwarmer to superstar—just days before his contract was set to expire. America couldn’t resist the NBA player’s singular character and underdog narrative: the resulting hullabaloo was dubbed “Linsanity.” Linsanity gave way to combinations of “Lin” with just about anything in headlines, on Twitter and elsewhere. His tale was a Linderella story. He seemed Linvincible, like a Linja assassin. He was Super Lintendo. “[A]ll he does is Lin, Lin, Lin,” tweeted Shaquille O’Neal. By mid-March, as Lin’s performance waned, the New York Times declared, “It’s the end of Linsanity as we know it.” Headline writers just had to Lin and bear it.

3. Austerity

If this year was only about one thing, it was money–particularly how many people felt there wasn’t enough going around. Talking heads were constantly discussing “austerity measures” that European leaders imposed as a response to the international financial crisis. G20 countries, including the U.S., struggled to make good on “austerity pledges” by slashing deficits and spending. Germans prepared for “austerity votes,” while citizens of Greece, the year’s poster child for financial woes, held “anti-austerity” strikes. Austerity, in the 2012 sense, was shorthand for self-imposed financial discipline, but also for undue severity (which pretty much sums up both sides in any argument about budget cuts). The term inevitably became an election buzzword, too. “Are Obama and Romney Competing For the Austerity Prize?” read one headline in May, as candidates touted their ability to make tough decisions. Critics meanwhile referred to Romney’s budget plan, embracing some of Paul Ryan’s cuts, as a “program of fiscal austerity.” In short, though the campaigns may have been raking in cash in 2012, for many it was an austere year.

2. Big Data

“Big data” is kind of a technological catchall. Most simply, it’s a way to describe the crazy amount of data generated these days. Information is churned out in racing streams by everything from social networks to weather balloons: we live in an era of big data. More specifically, “big data” can refer to data sets so immense that we don’t have the tools to mine them—or so robust that we can do fancy new things with them. Campaigns, for example, were able to “micro-target” voters in unprecedented ways this year, while an upcoming version of Microsoft Excel can scan millions of tweets and (poof!) transform them into a chart. Part of the reason “big data” got so much attention in 2012 was, unsurprisingly, that techies were angling to define just what that term means. The meaning will shift as technology continues to advance, but suffice it to say: there’s a lot more data today than there used to be, and that’s a fact rich with obstacles and rewards.

1. Fiscal Cliff

A dreaded crag loomed over 2012. Pundits and politicians were obsessed with a “fiscal cliff,” a foreseen change in the government’s financial policies they feared could harm the economy. After Congress reached a debt-ceiling deal in the summer of 2011, a “super committee” was tasked with identifying additional places that the budget could be nipped and tucked. If that bipartisan group of legislators failed to come to an agreement, which they did, automatic across-the-board cuts would be triggered. Those were set to go into effect in January 2013; tax cuts were set to expire around the same time; and Congress had to deal with other fiscal business that legislators punted to post-election days. The unknown repercussions and size of the resulting fiscal cliff caused constant hand-wringing in the latter half of the year, as people waited to see if Congress—and whoever the President might be—would steer America away from the drop-off.

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