What Is Your Signature Word?

If you have a friend that you talk to on a regular basis, either over coffee or gchat, you’ll start to notice certain words that she uses. You have your own signature words, too, even though you may not even realize it.

Matthew J.X. Malady explores fingerprint words this week in Slate. How do we adopt them? How should we feel when “our” words get picked up by the masses?

“There is a lot of ambivalence there,” he says. “On the one hand we like that people admire or respect our choices. And to some extent we like being a leader. But there’s something also uncomfortable about people mimicking us. We want people to say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ but not to start imitating us.”


The Intimacy of Text and the Evolution of Language

From Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other to tech writer Paul Miller’s experiment of going offline for an entire year, much has been written about how the Internet is potentially warping our brains. So, I found it refreshing to read Helena Fitzgerald’s recent piece in The New Inquiry, which argues that our current primary forms of communication – texting, Gchat, email, Twitter, blogging – are forging (or re-establishing) a new relationship with the written word:

Internet socialization is far closer to a 19th century mode of intimacy than to a dystopian future of tragically disconnected robot prostitutes. There’s a Jane Austen-ish quality to online social life. The written word gains unmatched power and inarguable primacy.

Whether we’re sending long-form letters to one another or chatting face to face with friends, storytelling is key, according to Jag Bhalla writing for Scientific American:

Any story we tell of our species, any science of human nature, that leaves out much of what and how we feel is false. Nature shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot. We are adapted to physiologically interact with stories.

Finally, Discovery News reports that there are 23 words that may date back 15,000 years. Here’s a hat-tip to David Weinberger, whose link to this article poetically ties together these ancient words with our modern technology:


The National Spelling Bee and the Evolution of Everyday Conversation

Hi. My name is Melanie and I am laodicean – pococurante, even – when it comes to being cymotrichous.

That. Sounded. Weird. But one day it may not.

I just used two winning words from previous National Spelling Bees, the 2012 edition is currently taking place in Washington, DC, and on your ESPN screens. Laodicean, spelled correctly by Kavya Shivashankar in the 2009 final, means indifference or a person with such an attitude. Pococurante also means indifferent, and it was the winning word in 2003, spelled correctly by Sai R. Gunturi. Cymotrichous, spelled by Sukanya Roy for the 2011 win, means having wavy hair.

I really am indifferent when it comes to having wavy hair, a condition that happens a lot during a typical DC summer. On the other hand, word nerd that I am, the National Spelling Bee has always excited me. What excites me even more is looking at the list of previous winning words from the National Spelling Bee and recognizing a good many of them as words that we use today in everyday speech. The winning words are a glimpse into our evolving vocabulary, the globalization of the English language, and the creeping of pop culture words into our dictionaries.

I love how the winning word for 1927 was “luxuriance” while the one for 1929 was “asceticism.” It amuses me how little Jean Trowbridge spelled “interning” correctly to win in 1936, while her successor, Waneeta Beckley, won with the word “promiscuous” in 1937. Irony is so easily found in hindsight.

“Condominium,” such an everyday word in today’s conversations, was the word winner in 1956, while “sycophant” a word that brings to my mind a few characters from “Mad Men” won the Bee in 1964, right about the same year in which that hit TV show is set. The “Me Generation” is reflected in several winning words during the 1970s: croissant (1970), narcolepsy (1976), deification (1978).

After a lull in the early 1980s, when the words “Purim” (1983) and “luge” (1984) were enough to win, the words start getting harder. But many are still very recognizable as words we use today: staphylococci (1987; ok, we use “staph” when describing the infection, but it’s still common); lyceum (1992); and chiaroscurist (1998), to name a few.

I wonder if this year’s winning word will become a term that we in 5, 10, or 20 years will use on a regular basis? That will require some real prospicience (2002).

Take a look at the full list of winning words and their spellers here.