According to the dictionary editors at Merriam-Webster, the “word of the year” for 2010 was austerity. Their choice was not random: it was determined by the volume inquiries to their online database, which they reveal conducts more than 500 million searches per year by users seeking definitions, explanations, or more understanding. “What we look for,” explained the president and publisher John Morse, “are the words that have had spikes that strike us very much as an anomaly for their regular behavior. The word that really qualifies this year for that is ‘austerity’.”
I am a great believer that words are vastly more important than most people understand, or admit. Most people have never bothered to consider this point, but there is a deep psychology to words and how they shape our thoughts and define our place in society and the world. They don’t bother to consider how the words we use to express ourselves influence the way readers or listeners understand or evaluate us, and accept or reject us.
The rest of us spend a lot of time selecting the just the right word for our statement or comment. Some of us, or at least me, “collect” words for some later use. And, we’re becoming a bit depressed at the prospect of a world in which a message like “R U reddy 2 go?” might pass a spell check. (OK. That last part may be just me.)
I never would have searched for a definition of austerity: I know the word and I know the feeling. But, for the sake of clarity, the dictionary offers three meanings of the word, all of which are helpful:
“1: The quality or state of being austere.” That’s simple enough, and close to what most people understand about the austerity.
“2: a) An austere act, manner, or attitude; b): An ascetic practice.” This is normally the way I think about austerity, and it’s not an objectionable quality if the austerity is chosen or adopted for a reason, for example design simplicity, or the peace of mind that might come from contemplation.
“3: Enforced or extreme economy.” This, I’m sure, is how most people understand austerity. Merriam-Webster explained that “austerity” drew more than 250,000 word-searches in its dictionary database during 2010, and the publisher attributes that interest to news reports of budget cuts reported for numerous companies and locations, as well as debates about taxes, and debt crises in various states and foreign countries.
I would not have supposed that anyone would need to look up “austerity” once it’s been imposed on him or her (see definition No. 3, above). Just as important, I would not have supposed that we’d have to wait until the end of December to understand that austerity was defining us, and that it would be our word for the year.
So, I’m proposing the word for 2011, believing that the right word can shape the way we think and behave, and thereby help to make this year a more productive and prosperous one for everyone. The word is industry.
You may think you understand “industry,” as I thought I knew “austerity,” but consider these definitions:
“1: a) Systematic labor especially for some useful purpose, or the creation of something of value; b) a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture, especially one that employs a large personnel and capital, especially in manufacturing; c) a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises, e.g., the metalcasting industry; d) manufacturing activity as a whole, e.g., the nation’s industry.
“2: Work devoted to the study of a particular subject or author, e.g., the Shakespeare industry.
“3: Diligence in an employment or pursuit; especially steady or habitual effort.” That’s the one I’m after. (And to be honest, it’s actually the first and earliest definition of the word. I reordered them for editorial effect.) It dates to the 15th Century, and though it’s fallen out of general use now it is a particularly effective way to express the habit of dedicated, creative, and profitable work. “Because of his/her/their industry, he/she/they achieved great things and prospered,” one might easily observe — and easily understand — about any successful individual or group. And if we apply ourselves to the same idea, we enhance the likelihood that we will prosper, too.
It’s also not a bad idea to refresh our understanding of the other things we call “industry,” and to apply additional effort, insight, and creativity to improve its standing. If you agree, spread the word.