Distracted driving – what many are guilty of when they use digital devices on the go – is rapidly entering law books and legislation around the world and also earnt the 2009 Word of the Year choice at Webster’s New World® College Dictionary

A sign of the times surely, distracted driving is another reflection – and consequence – of our ongoing romance with all things digital and mobile and the enhanced capabilities they provide. While it is now easier and quicker to feed our multitasking habits, it is not always safe, and many jurisdictions are formalising that position by making it a crime to text or otherwise use a cellphone while driving. In other words, CrackBerry users beware, lest a charge of DWD (driving while distracted) or DWT (driving while texting) stain your record, not to mention endanger yourself and others. (CrackBerry – the mocking term for the BlackBerry™ and its “addicts” – was the 2006 Word of the Year.)

The term distracted driving is also a linguistic catch, note Webster’s New World® editors. As with drunk driving, it is not the driving that is drunk or distracted, but rather the driver. The target of the modifier distracted has been changed. Called hypallage, this twist is frequently seen in poetry, but as terms like restless night, juvenile detention center, and careless remark attest, such semantic inversion is not limited to the heights of language use.

The competition for 2009 Word of the Year at Webster’s New World® had several worthy contenders. Among the runners-up were

  • cloud computing: computer operations in which documents and data are created, edited, and stored remotely on servers and accessed by the user via an Internet connection (a beta definition, but this term is so well established that it will likely be added to the annual update of the College Dictionary in 2010)
  • wallet biopsy: examination, before medical service is provided, of a patient’s ability to pay, enabling the health care provider to decide whether free or discounted medical care is appropriate; a term probably fueled in part by the debate on national health care and a number of business and economy-related terms, such as stimulus and Too Big To Fail.