What’s in a Word of the Year?
We are constantly bombarded by new English words and meanings to words, so why not honour these innovations? To this end, since 1990 the American Dialect Society (ADS) has been electing annually a “word of the year.” The formula used by the ADS is similar to the process used by Time Magazine that has been selecting a “person of the year” since 1927 when Charles Lindbergh was the inaugural selection; i.e., choosing a person or word that was of particular significance in the past year.
Not surprisingly, the fields that have been most dominant in providing important neologisms have been technology and sociopolitics/economics. For example, in the former, these words have previously been deemed “word of the year”: Hashtag (2012), app (2010), tweet (2009), Y2K (1999), e- (1998), WWW (1995) cyber (1994). In addition, in 2010, google was voted as “word of the decade.” In the latter category, winners were occupy (2011), bailout (2008), subprime (2007), truthiness (2007), WMD (2002). 9-11 (2001), chad (2000) bushlips (1990). The term truthinesss was invented by Stephen Colbert and refers to the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true. You could say that Colbert envisaged the mindset of next decade’s Trump supporters.
Some of the choices have proved to be short-lived. In fact, the very first selection in 1990, bushlips had the shortest legs of all. It referred to insincere political rhetoric emanating from the mouth of George Herbert Bush. Other choices that have not lasted are plutoed the 2006 selection that referred to the demotion or devaluation of something. It was named from the decision of the General Assembly of the International Astronomic Association that Pluto no longer deserved to be classified as a planet. Another term that fizzled out was the 1999 choice Y2K. It was an abbreviation for “the year 2000.” Many people believed that the advent of the year 2000 would create computer chaos because programmers represented the four digit year without the final two digits making the year 2000 indistinguishable from the year 1900. Needless to say a cyber-apocalypse never ensued leading to the term Y2K not having any great currency in the new millennium. If you’re under thirty you might not be familiar with the 1993 selection information superhighway, a term for the Internet that hasn’t been used much since of the end of the century.
In recent years, I have found some of the choices of the ADS to be puzzling. For example, in 2013 “because” was the winner due to of the supposed new usage of the word in introducing a noun, adjective or other part of speech in expressions such as “because reason” or “because awesome.” One of the voters this year stated that “because should be word the year ‘because useful.’ ” I beg to differ as I don’t find this usage useful and don’t believe it is greatly used. Personally, I would have voted one of the runners-up, selfie as the winner. The following year the hashtag #blacklivesmatter was the winner, notwithstanding that this extends the definition of what qualifies as a word to a level of absurdity.
As American English is but one of the two major flavours in which English can be savoured, it is only fair that we see British selections for words of the year. To this end, Oxford Dictionaries began similar selections in 2004. In 1877, philologist Henry Sweet predicted that within a century British English and American English would become mutually unintelligible. Clearly this has not occurred; however we do see great divergence in the words Oxford has chosen to honour. For example, the only word with a technological bent was selfie, the 2013 selection. The socio-political words chosen were also very different from those picked by the ADS. In fact, only two of the four would be known by many North Americans; the 2007 choice carbon footprint and the one in 2008 credit crunch. The other two merit explanation for denizens of Canada and the USA. The 2010 choice squeezed middle refers to the situation where wage increases for the middle class fail to keep pace with inflation. The 2011 selection big society refers to a political ideology whereby a significant amount of responsibility for the functioning of society is devolved to local communities and volunteers.
What I found most interesting about the Oxford selections was how many of the winners come from television culture. For example the 2012 winner omnishambles was a neologism that came out of the BBC political satire show The Thick of It; it referred to a situation shambolic to the extreme. The 2006 winner bovvered was a variation of the word “bothered” as uttered by a character in the program Catherine Tate Show. The character Lauren was prone to ask “Am I bovvered?” when embarrassed. Most curious, however was the 2009 selection simples which arose out of an advertising campaign featuring an animated meerkat. It became a catchphrase uttered when someone want to convey that something is easy to achieve.
And as in the case of ADS, Oxford too has become overly liberal in its definition of a word as the emoji tears of joy was awarded word of the year in 2015.
(The word of the year for 2016 chosen by ADS was dumpster fire to refer to the state of political chaos that exists).
Richler’s latest book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in May2016