Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

He teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of The Way We Talk Now, Going Nucular, Talking Right and The Years of Talking Dangerously. His most recent book is Ascent of the A-Word. His website is www.geoffreynunberg.com.

"The way kids speak today, I'm here to tell you." Over the course of history, every aging generation has made that complaint, and it has always turned out to be overblown. That's just as well. If the language really had been deteriorating all this time, we'd all be grunting like bears by now.

The French have gotten themselves into one of their recurrent linguistic lathers, this one over the changes in their spelling that will be taking effect in the fall. The changes were originally proposed more than 25 years ago. But nothing much came of them until the government recently announced that they'd be incorporated in the new textbooks, at which point traditionalists took to the barricades.

The obvious candidates for word of the year are the labels of the year's big stories — new words like "microaggression" or resurgent ones like "refugees." But sometimes a big theme is captured in more subtle ways. So for my word of the year, I offer you the revival of "gig" as the name for a new economic order. It's the last chapter in the life of a little word that has tracked the rise and fall of the great American job.

To listen to the media tell it, "so" is busting out all over — or at least at the beginning of a sentence. New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas calls "so" the new "um" and "like"; others call it a plague and a fad.

"I tell it like it is." Chris Christie made this his campaign slogan. Donald Trump repeats it whenever he's challenged on something he has said. And Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich and Rick Santorum have said the same thing. It's the conventional pledge of candor, or what passes for it in American public life.

We English-speakers take a perverse pride in the orneriness of our spelling, which is one reason why the spelling bee has been a popular entertainment since the 19th century. It's fun watching schoolchildren getting difficult words right. It can be even more entertaining to watch literate adults getting them wrong.

HBO's Silicon Valley is back, with its pitch-perfect renderings of the culture and language of the tech world — like at the opening of the "Disrupt" startup competition run by the Tech Crunch website at the end of last season. "We're making the world a better place through scalable fault-tolerant distributed databases" — the show's writers didn't have to exercise their imagination much to come up with those little arias of geeky self-puffery, or with the name Disrupt, which, as it happens, is what the Tech Crunch conferences are actually called.

The thing I found interesting about the "latte salute" foofaraw was that people were calling it that. Why did they feel the need to suggest that it was a latte that the president was holding when he made that perfunctory salute to the Marines as he left his helicopter last month? How can a latte still be a sign of effete self-indulgence when you can get one at any McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts these days? Isn't that whole red-blue business a little vieux chapeau?

To judge from some of the headlines, it was a very big deal. At an event held at the Royal Society in London, for the first time ever, a computer passed the Turing Test, which is widely taken as the benchmark for saying a machine is engaging in intelligent thought. But like the other much-hyped triumphs of artificial intelligence, this one wasn't quite what it appeared. Computers can do things that seem quintessentially human, but they usually take a different path to get there.

I feel a little defensive about choosing "selfie" as my Word of the Year for 2013. I've usually been partial to words that encapsulate one of the year's major stories, such as "occupy" or "big data." Or "privacy," which is the word Dictionary.com chose this year. But others go with what I think of as mayfly words — the ones that bubble briefly to the surface in the wake of some fad or fashion.

Pages