Wednesday, March 16, 2016


The Word of the Year isn’t even a word
Howard Richler

What’s a word? Of course, what qualifies as a word lexicographically has always been somewhat problematic. For example, we can’t assume that just because a word is found in one dictionary that it will be listed in others. For example, Merriam Webster includes confuzzled, “Confused and puzzled at the same of producing neologisms,” chillax, “Chill out/relax, hang out with friends”; gription, “The purchase gained by friction”; and lingweenie, “A person incapable of producing neologisms,” but none of these entries are found in the OED.
On the other hand, the lists athame, “a double-edged knife used OED for ritual purposes in Wicca and other neo-pagan movements”; chav, “a young person characterized by brash and loutish behaviour”; Enviropig, “a genetically modified variety of pig that is able to digest phytic acid producing manure with a reduced content and hence environmental impact”  and studerite, “an arsenic-rich variety of tetrahedrite,” but these entries aren’t to be found in Merriam Websters’ Third New International Dictionary.
It would appear judging by recent decisions that a word can be anything that is said or expressed in any manner whatsoever.  For example, in its inaugural 1990 contest, the American Dialect Society (ADS) voted bushlips, “insincere political rhetoric,” as its word of the year, yet to my knowledge, no dictionary has ever included this term. In 2014, the ADS’s word of the year wasn’t even a word as we understand the term. The winner was the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. (Hashtag was the ADS word of the year in 2012.)  ADS spokesperson Ben Zimmer said that “although #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message.”
Given the Oxford Dictionaries choice of word of the year for 2015, the definition of a word is becoming even more confuzzled, for the “word” that won is not  a word at all, but rather a pictograph:. 😂. Officially called the “Face with Tears of Joy” this pictograph is an emoji which is defined by the OED as “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communications.” Emojis have been around since the late 1990s, but 2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely.
This year Oxford University Press have partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emojis across the world, and 😂 was chosen as “word” of the year because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified that it comprised 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.  In an interview, Casper Grothwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries said that an emoji was selected as “word” of the year because it highlights how we have become a visually-obsessed culture.
Emoji is a loanword from Japanese and marries e, “picture,” with moji, “letter, character.” It marries e, “picture,” with moji, “letter, character.” Its similarity to the English word emoticon has probably enhanced its popularity; however, the resemblance is totally accidental as emoticon blends emotion and icon. Like it or not, emojis are no longer the preserve of those who tweet or texters, and have been embraced by many as a nuanced form of expression that transcends language barriers. For example, in August 2015 Hillary Clinton tweeted, ‘How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” (We’ll forgive her for not using “fewer.”)
By the way, probably to assuage old fogeys such as me who aren’t totally enamored by picture words, Oxford Dictionaries did have some more conventional words as candidates for 2015’s “word of the year.” They included:  ad blocker, “a piece of software designed to prevent ads from appearing on a web page”;  Brexit, “a term for the potential or hypothetical  exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union”(from British +exit); Dark Web, “World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software; allowing users and website operators to remain untraceable or anonymous”; on fleek,  “extremely good, attractive or stylish” ( apparently an arbitrary formation popularized in a 2014 video post on the social media service Vine by  adolescent Kayla Newman, a.k.a., Peaches Monroee); lumbersexual, “a young urban male who cultivates an appearance and style of dress typified by a beard and checked shirt suggestive of a rugged, outdoor lifestyle”; refugee, “a person forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster”; sharing economy, “an economic  system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either for free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet”; they (singular), “used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.”
Personally, I won’t be shedding tears of joy over the selection of a pictograph as word of the year. I guess I’m just not on fleek. And just how do those at Oxford who chose this image as “word” of the year propose to list it their dictionaries?
Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in March 2016.