Grant Barrett, our engagement editor and co-host of public radio’s A Way with Words, writes an annual piece about the words of the year for the New York Times, and he’s agreed to do the same for us.

His assignment: find new or newly prominent words that stood out locally in 2010.

Barrett tracks the origin, aesthetics and prospects for a whole bunch of words, including PubMayoFaulconMaio, junk (as in don’t-touch-my), Chia Center and bomb factory.

When Your Number’s Up, He Counts It:

If you feel a tingle in your chest this Saturday, be extra careful. It might be more than a reminder of your overindulgence in some over-spiked eggnog, and the odds are less in your favor than usual: People are more likely to die of heart problems on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day than any other days of the year.

How’s that for holiday cheer? But David Phillips, a sociologist at UCSD, has some good news too: contrary to popular belief, people are less likely to take their own lives at this time of year. And that’s not all he knows. Phillips has spent his career analyzing death statistics and confirming (or debunking) widely held beliefs about when and how we become life-challenged.

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I talked to Phillips this week about the special hazards that the holidays pose — including one that he just reported — and asked him why he’s drawn to such grim numbers about how we buy the pine condo.

A River Runs (and Floods) Through It:

As always when it rains hard, Mission Valley is one giant mess of flooded parking lots and streets. Workers were pumping water out of the football stadium (the U-T has stunning photos) and tourists were stranded in hotels.

Could it be worse? Absolutely, many residents, planners and advocates fear. All those condos and shopping malls were built in a major flood plain, and the region lacks an emergency plan for floods. The traffic is horrible on regular days, and just imagine if everyone tried to evacuate at once.

Someday, an environmentalist told us in 2006, “the dams will hold it up to a certain point, then they won’t hold it any more and we’ll have another flood like 1916, and our city will face another economic loss. That will probably be billions of dollars, and then we’ll be surprised again.”

How bad were things in 1916 when a rainmaker came to town during a drought and tried to make it pour? The San Diego River — at the center of Mission Valley — became a mile wide. A dam burst in the South Bay, killing at least 20 and possibly 50 or 60. “Great trees tumbled root over branch. Sticks of lumber, railroad ties and parts of houses floated crazily,” a historian wrote. “Out of the gullies from the east and south came droves of cattle, horses, sheep and goats… More than 200 bridges were washed out.”

A local cowboy poet who grew up in East County and heard old-timers tell legends about the flood told me in 2008 that you can still see where floodwaters dislodged boulders from hills and carved new canyons around Dulzura.

Helping Newcomers Find Their Way:

Elizabeth Lou came to the United States from Sudan with education and drive, but still found it hard to figure out how life works here. “I went to school in my country in English and I can read and write and I’m not scared of talking to people — and yet I am struggling to get things done.” She considered the plight of other refugees without her advantages: “How much more are they struggling?

She did something about it by founding a nonprofit that helps refugee women adjust to living in San Diego. In this weekend’s Q&A, she tells us about the challenges facing refugees in areas like school, health and general culture.

Tell It to the Judge:

It’s a scourge, this deluge of vile bigotry, vicious crackpottery and nasty insults.

No, I’m not talking about family holiday get-togethers. I mean the online comment sections of American newspapers where unnamed trolls keep things in the gutter. To keep garbage out of the public discourse, is a bit unusual: we don’t allow anonymous comments. Now the North County Times is joining the club: it will require commenters to use their real names on the newspaper’s website.

“If you are ashamed to have your speech associated with your good name, then I guess you will have to choose some other venue in which to voice your opinion” editor Kent Davy writes. “And that will be just fine with us.”

Some commenters are not happy. “Maybe we should give our place of work, Social Security number and where our kids go to school too. Just in case the other information is not enough for somebody to stalk us,” one complains. Another sneers that Davy should consult a lawyer: “The unintended legal consequences of this could put him out on the street and the Times under new ownership. I wouldn’t mind owning it. I’d shut it down and donate the building to the San Diego Minutemen.”

Sounds like someone is in desperate need of an activist judge. (Disclosure: I write a weekly column for the NCT.)

Stadium Woes Here, Stadium Woes There:

There’s new talk of an NFL stadium in downtown L.A., which might be in the hunt to woo away the Chargers. But there are lots of challenges. Meanwhile, a Yahoo story says the Bolts are one of only two teams — the other’s not well liked in these parts — likely to head to L.A.

Dream On, People:

Hey, here’s some good news: a new report says San Diego homes will gain 3.5 percent of their value over the next year, making us the strongest housing market in the country.

I contacted our resident hope-killer, curmudgeonly real-estate guru Rich Toscano, to see if he’d like to throw cold water on this prediction. He headed to the icebox and came back with this:

It’s fun to pretend. These people are trying to give the idea that they can predict, to the nearest one-tenth of a percent, how much home prices will have changed exactly one year out. That is silly enough on its own; it’s downright ridiculous at a time when the housing market is highly dependent on a government intervention effort that is both unprecedented in scope and subject to change with the political winds.

O (Coronado) Christmas Tree:

On Christmas Eve 106 years ago, the Hotel del Coronado flipped a switch and made history — maybe.

The hotel says it was the first place in world history to festoon an outdoor Christmas tree with electric lights. “The radiant tree was the object of admiration…. Little wonder that all the children marveled, for their elders did the same,” rhapsodized The San Diego Union in a gushing 1904 story.

The tree, a pine planted years earlier on the hotel property, was actually rather spindly. And the tale may be a myth. A local medium who runs a website about the paranormal in San Diego investigated and heard from an Thomas Edison specialist who told her the hotel wasn’t the first to light an outdoor tree.

A local “fact” that isn’t true? OMG! Well, here’s hoping the tree actually was the first of its kind. And may your own holidays be well-lit. Failing that, feel free to get lit yourself.

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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