What Do 'Refugee,' 'Jump the Couch' and 'Spokesweasel' Have in Common?
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: closing the dictionary on some words of 2005.
RS: Grant Barrett is project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang at Oxford University Press. We talked to him last week before the 16th annual words of the year vote by the American Dialect Society. A.D.S. is a small, scholarly group founded in 1889.
AA: We asked Grant Barrett what he thought those words might be. The first one that came to his mind was a word that stirred up debate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
GRANT BARRETT: "I think one of the top candidates is going to be 'refugee.' In order to qualify for the A.D.S vote, a word doesn't have to be new, it only has to be very important for the last 12 months. And refugee was indeed that, not only because of the number of people who were forced to migrate out of the Gulf Coast area, but because we discovered -- that is, we those people in the language business -- that the general public has a different idea of what refugee means than what is actually in the dictionaries.
"For many of them, it's pejorative. It says things about you being poor or unable to take of yourself or unliked by your country or uncared for by your country. So people did not want to be called that. They chose evacuee or a variety of other terms."
RS: "And other words?"
GRANT BARRETT: "Well, there was a word that at Oxford University Press we have decided is the slang word of the year, and it's actually a slang term. It's called 'jump the couch.' Now this has been discussed ad nauseum, and I think there actually might be a backlash vote against it because it's been discussed so heavily."
RS: "Jump the couch."
GRANT BARRETT: "That's right. Jump the couch means to exhibit strange or frenetic behavior, and it stems from an appearance by Tom Cruise on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' in May where he was professing his love for Katie Holmes. And he did a sack dance -- you know, the little jig that the football players do when they score a touchdown. He was knuckle-wrestling Oprah. He had her hands in his hands, he was standing over her, it was like a test of strength. And then he leapt up on the guest couch next to her."
OPRAH WINFREY: "We've never seen you behave this way before."
TOM CRUISE: "I know."
OPRAH WINFREY: "Have you ever felt this way before? [shrieks from audience]"
RS: "How would you use jump the couch in a sentence?"
GRANT BARRETT: "Well, actually, I should tell you a little bit more about the history of the word and then you'll understand why they're using it the way they're using it. Jump the couch comes from 'jump the shark,' which is a slightly older slang term which means to be past your peak of popularity or to kind of be over with, creatively, to not have any more new ideas in you.
"And that comes from an episode of 'Happy Days' where Fonzie water-skied over a shark, and many people feel that was the worst episode and the point of the downturn of that television show."
AA: "Right, and so that led to a -- wasn't there a book by that title? It became 'jump the shark' a few years ago. And so now it's -- jump the shark has become jump the couch."
GRANT BARRETT: "So if I were to say to you that Tom Cruise had jumped the couch, I mean that he is just doing whatever he can to get attention because he's kind of past his popular prime."
RS: "Did you have a favorite this year?"
GRANT BARRETT: "I did, and it's a very simple one, and it's very transparent, and it's the word 'spokesweasel.'"
GRANT BARRETT: "Do you know what a spokesweasel is?"
GRANT BARRETT: "A spokesweasel is a spokesperson or a press person or a public relations person."
AA: "So this is not a term of praise."
GRANT BARRETT: "Oh, by no means. A weasel goes back, how far back into American history? A weasel has never been a desirable name for a human being. It's always been somebody who's a little slimy and smarmy and you can't respect them, and they have a tendency to fudge the truth or lie or to try to cheat you."
RS: "So this is a spokesperson who is a little suspect."
GRANT BARRETT: "Yeah, and let's face it, sometimes spokespersons are put in odd positions, aren't they? Because the people they represent do things that the spokesperson has to explain away, and it's a difficult task. So they are forced to kind of not answer the questions as they're asked or not answer them fully, or give an answer that's more of a misdirection than it is an explanation."
AA: Grant Barrett, project editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, speaking from Albuquerque, New Mexico. So how did "jump the couch" do in the voting at the American Dialect Society meeting? It was selected as "Best Tom-Cruise-Related Word."
RS: As for "refugee," all Katrina-related words came in second in the voting for Word of the Year. The winner was "truthiness." It's defined by the linguists as "the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true."
Truthiness comes from a show on the Comedy Central channel on cable television. "The Colbert Report" -- or as they say on the show, "kohl-BEAR re-POR" -- is a satire of the news.
AA: And that's the truth! That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is email@example.com, and all of our reports are at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.