The Word of the Year

American and British annual selections reflect the great divergence in English-language usage

WE ARE CONSTANTLY BOMBARDED, it seems, by new words and meanings to words, so why not honour these innovations? To this end, the American Dialect Society has been electing a “word of the year” each year since 1990. The ADS’s election process is similar to that used by Time magazine, which has been naming a “person of the year” since 1927 (when Charles Lindbergh selected), namely that the person, or word, chosen had a particular significance in the past year.

Not surprisingly, the fields that have been dominant in providing important neologisms have been technology and socio-politics/economics. In the former category, these words have been named “word of the year”: hashtag (2012), app (2010), tweet (2009), Y2K (1999), e- (1998), www (1995), and cyber (1994); and in 2010, google was voted “word of the decade.” Winners in the latter category were occupy (2011), bailout (2008), subprime (2007), truthiness (2007), WMD (2002), 9-11 (2001), chad (2000), and bushlips (1990). The term truthiness was invented by Stephen Colbert and refers to the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not actually true. You could say that Colbert envisaged the mindset of the next decade’s Trump supporters.

Some of the choices have been short-lived in popular usage. 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 President George H. W. Bush. Another pick that didn’t last in common parlance was plutoed, the 2006 selection that referred to the demotion or devaluation of something, and named for the decision of the General Assembly of the International Astronomic Association that Pluto no longer deserved to be classified as a planet. The 1999 choice of Y2K, an abbreviation for “year 2000,” likewise fizzled out; many had believed that the advent of the year 2000 would create widespread computer chaos because programmers abbreviated the year’s four digits to “00,” making it indistinguishable from the year 1900. A cyber-apocalypse never ensued, though, and Y2K no longer carried great currency. And if you’re under thirty you may not be familiar with the 1993 selection, information superhighway, a term for the Internet that likewise hasn’t been used much since the end of the last century.

In recent years I have found some of the choices of the ADS puzzling. For example, in 2013 because was named the winner due to its supposed new usage in introducing a noun, adjective or other part of speech in expressions such as “because reason” or “because awesome.” A voter for that year was quoted as saying “because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’” I beg to differ; 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.

As American English is but one of the two most popular flavours in which English can be savoured, it is only fair that we also look at British selections for words of the year, and Oxford Dictionaries began its own selections in 2004. In 1877, philologist Henry Sweet predicted that within a century “England, America, and Australia will be speaking mutually unintelligible languages owing to their independent changes of pronunciation.” Clearly this has not occurred, although we do see great divergence in the words Oxford Dictionaries has chosen to honour. For example, the only word chosen with a technological bent was selfie, the 2013 selection. The socio-political words selected were also very different from those picked by the ADS, and in fact only two of the four would be known by many North Americans: the 2007 choice, carbon footprint, and 2008’s credit crunch.

But Oxford’s other two winning words in this category merit explanation for English-speaking 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; and 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 popular culture. For example, the 2012 winner omnishambles was a neologism that emerged from the BBC’s political satire show The Thick of It; it referred to a situation shambolic in the extreme. The 2006 winner, bovvered, was a variation of the word “bothered” as uttered by a character on The Catherine Tate Show.

Most curious, however, was the 2009 selection, simples, a word that arose from an advertising campaign featuring an animated meerkat. It became a catchphrase for something that was considered easy to achieve. And like the ADS, Oxford Dictionaries has become overly liberal in its definition of a word, naming the tears of joy emoji as its word of the year in 2015.

Oxford’s word of the year for 2016 was post-truth, while the ADS opted for dumpster fire; it refers to a disastrous and chaotic situation that characterized public discourse that year.

Howard Richler’s latest book, Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit, is published by Ronsdale Press.