COLUMN: Occupy Language – Top words from 2011

This is my Sunday column for the Jan. 7, 2012 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. The “top words” column is another annual tradition of mine. A version of this piece aired recently on 91.7 KAXE.

Occupy Language: Top words from 2011
By Aaron J. Brown

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are.”

How we talk, what we describe and why is the sum of our human existence. That’s why every year I look at the list of top words put out by an organization called the Global Language Monitor, which tracks language use in our culture. From this list we learn who we are and how we are different from those who came before.

The top word for 2011 is “occupy.” This word is associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was big news this year, but also with the end of the occupation in Iraq and in the terms incorporated by successful protest movements around the world.

Time Magazine named “The Protester” as its Person of the Year for a reason: this was a year of meaningful protest, even if some results have been uncertain. The word “occupy” represents more than the literal meaning, but rather the occupation of our minds by disturbing conditions in our world.

Next on the list is “deficit,” a term you often hear in American political disputes but is actually causing even more ruckus in other parts of the world. Are you familiar with the European Debt Crisis? If not you’ll soon get to know it’s sequel, “Global Debt Crisis,” starring the USA and China and featuring some place you know being burned in protest.

Or maybe not! Ha Ha! Let’s stay positive.

It doesn’t bode well that the third word on the list is “fracking.” This controversial term refers to a hydraulic process that removes fossil fuels from previously unattainable reserves. Fracking involves pumping toxic liquids into the earth and the possible side effect of “earthquakes,” so at minimum we are closing the gap between reality and science fiction.

Some important people would like you to know that there’s nothing wrong with fracking. Why wouldn’t we believe them? They are scientists, no? Legend of local monsters coming to life mean nothing in today’s modern go-go world.

Another ominous word takes fourth position: “drone.” The United States has been secretly flying unmanned Predator drones into the airspace of some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots. And the fact that a midlevel writer in the upper Midwest knows this shows you about how well the secret has been kept.

After this the list gets funny. Sort of. The fifth word is Non-Veg, an Indian meal featuring meat that has become something of a worldwide culinary trend. The sixth was new to me, Kummerspeck, a German word referring to weight gain due to emotional overeating. That’s not very funny, but the Americanized version “grief bacon” is pretty funny. The seventh word is haboob, an Arabic word now being applied to massive sandstorms in the American southwest. Sandstorms aren’t funny either, but I’m glad to welcome haboobs to the vernacular.

The list makes mention of how words and numbers are constantly merging. The term “3Q” is the eighth word and represents a sort of universal term for “thank you.” It earned some notoriety by being banned by the Chinese government. The last two words are also protest terms, “Trustafarians” are the wealthy British protestors who participated in the low-income riots last year. “(The Other) 99 percent,” of course, are the population group that has suffered during the global economic crisis while the Top 1 percent have benefited, according to the backers of the aforementioned Occupy movement.

A year with so many protest words also brought the term “Arab Spring” as the top phrase of 2011. Dictatorships across the Middle East fell at the hands of democratic protestors and small armies. The top phrase from 2010 was “Anger and Rage,” which also makes the list in 2011 but with the caveat that the proper term ought to be “Frustration and Disappointment.” This seems to me to be the Minnesota version of Anger and Rage.

Global Language Monitor also lists the top names of the year, first being the late Apple founder and tech innovator Steve Jobs and the other being the late Osama bin Laden. Though these two men lived very different lives and produced very different outcomes, both unequivocally changed our world forever.

It’s usually hard to predict what the top words will be one year to the next. You can expect that the 2012 election and continuing financial problems around the world will influence the selection. I suppose all we can do is let hope “occupy” our hearts and try to lay off that grief bacon.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE.


  1. Ha! Boob! Haboob!

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