‘Squeezed middle’ is word of the year, says OED

Word watchers for the Oxford English Dictionary have chosen a phrase that they say perfectly captures the spirit of the moment. But why are terms like ‘squeezed middle’ so quick to catch on?

The phrase ‘squeezed middle’ may conjure up images of someone pouring themselves into a corset, but in fact the expression, invented by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Word of the Year for 2011. It refers to people who are on low or middle incomes, and who feel like they are suffering the most in the current recession.

This is just the latest word or phrase to have been judged to perfectly capture the spirit of its time. Back in sustainability-conscious 2007 it was ‘locavore’ – someone who only eats local food. In 2008, after the financial hardships of the credit crunch, ‘hypermiling’ was the rather unglamorous word of the moment: it means driving so as to maximise fuel efficiency. The next year, 2009, was the year of social networking – but not in a nice way. The OED chose ‘unfriend’ to sum up the zeitgeist.

This year’s choice has had an unusually lukewarm reception. Arts writer Will Gompertz caught the mood, saying that ‘squeezed middle’ was ‘graceless, clunky and ill-defined.’ ‘I'd associate the phrase with a toothpaste tube,’ he wrote for the BBC.

‘Ed Miliband has had lots of stick for it,’ admitted OED spokeswoman Susie Dent. The phrase certainly is not a precise or conceptually exciting description; it probably applies in a vague way to around 90% of Britain’s population, as various critics have pointed out. But, as a social category, ‘squeezed middle’ seems to have stuck, resonating with the feelings and concerns of ordinary people.

It joins a long list of identifying terms that are used to categorise people today. Words like ‘chav’, which became popular around 2005, or ‘yuppie’, invented in the 1980s, caught on instantly, spawning endless conversations dedicated to refining the subtleties of their definitions. Terms like this can create new social ‘tribes’, with their own dress codes and self-consciously adopted attitudes.

Unhealthy fascination?

Humans clearly have an amazing appetite for words with which to describe, and pigeonhole, one another. Is this healthy? To categorise a person with some clever concept is, arguably, just a way to stereotype them. It means denying that person’s individuality; seeing them only as a member of a tribe or type, rather than as a unique character in their own right.

On the other hand, many people enthusiastically use social category terms to describe themselves. Even words that start out as insults, like ‘chav’ or ‘sloane’, get adopted by their targets; these labels are sometimes worn with pride. We use words like these, and like ‘squeezed middle’, to define our own social identities. That is why they catch on.

You Decide

  1. Are words like “squeezed middle” or “chav” useful or harmful?
  2. Why do people seem to love categorising themselves?

Activities

  1. What do you think should be the word of the year? Draw up a list of words that you think best sum up 2011.
  2. Divide into groups. Research the most obscure or difficult words you can find in the dictionary. Each person in the group should read out their chosen word, along with a few possible definitions — the real one, and some you have made up — and see how many people in the group guess correctly.

Some People Say...

“Stereotypes, even friendly ones, are always wrong.”

What do you think?

Q & A

You say Ed Miliband came up with this phrase?
Yes, in an interview with presenter John Humphrys on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, though some say Gordon Brown and even former American president Bill Clinton got there first.
Will they mind if Ed takes all the credit?
There’s no copyright issue on political buzzwords, so he’s probably safe.
Who chose it as word of the year?
Lexicographers for the OED — the people whose job it is to compile dictionaries — though Susie Dent, spokesperson for Oxford Dictionaries and language expert on Channel 4’sCountdown, has a hand in it too.
Will “squeezed middle” actually get put in the dictionary?
Strangely, being designated word of the year does not guarantee that word’s inclusion in the OED.

Word Watch

Credit crunch
Following the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007, there was a massive collapse in confidence among banks. They stopped lending to each other — a so called “credit crunch” — which paralysed the world economy.
Zeitgeist
The spirit of the times. The word is from German zeit, meaning “time”, and geist, meaning “spirit” or “ghost”.
Chav
A pejorative British term for young people of a certain type. There are many suggested origins for the word, but it probably comes from the Romani word chavi, or “child”.
Yuppie
A Young, Upwardly-mobile, Professional.

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