On this day in the 1930s, Jay Hormel hosted a New Year’s Eve party where he challenged his guests to create a name for his latest invention, a canned pork product.
On that night, not only was a new year born, but also one of the most successful and most recognizable brand names in history came into being: Spam. The winning name was formed from the contraction of sp(iced h)am; the winner of the contest was awarded $100.
Thanks to a sketch and song from the British television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the word Spam lost its capital letter and became a lowercase common noun referring to unsolicited e-mail. In the sketch, which first appeared in 1970, a waitress recites a list of menu items, all including Spam. As the menu is being recited, a song begins where male voices chant the word Spam more than 100 times. It’s this seemingly endless, repetitive chant that inspired computer users to select spam as the appropriate appellation for unwanted, disruptive email in 1994 (1).
One organization that is especially interested in language and new words is The American Dialect Society (ADS), a non-profit organization that studies the varieties of English specific to North America. Founded in 1889, the ADS publishes the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), a dictionary that attempts to document and map the varieties of spoken American English in the United States.
At its annual convention each January, members of the American Dialect Society vote on their “Word of the Year,” selecting the single word that was both popular in the previous year and that was demonstrably new. Below are some examples of previous winners:
2009 – Tweet
2008 – Bailout
2007 – Subprime
2006 – Plutoed
2005 – truthiness (2)
Today’s Challenge: New Year, New Words
What words or phrases do you think best typify the past year? What individual words or individual phrases would best sum up your experiences this year? Write an explanation for the word or phrase that you would submit as this year’s nominee for word of the year. You may base your explanation either on the important influence the word has had on the broader culture, or you may base your explanation on the important influence the word has had on your personal experience this year.
Use this writing exercise as an icebreaker at your New Year’s Eve party. If you’re really ambitious, you might also challenge your guests to honor Spam Day by inventing a new word for the year ahead. Award cans of Spam as the prize. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-Steinmetz, Sol and Barbara Ann Kipfer. The Life of Language. New York: Random House, 2006.
2-American Dialect Society. All of the Words of the Year, 1990 to Present. http://www.americandialect.org/woty/all-of-the-words-of-the-year-1990-to-present.