Weeping for Words

Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 “word of the year” isn’t any kind of word at all
Face with tears of joy.
Face with tears of joy.

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 time), 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 Oxford English Dictionary.

On the other hand, the
OED lists athame (a double-edged knife used for ritual purposes in Wicca and other neo-pagan movements), chav (a young person characterized by brash and loutish behaviour), Enviropig (a genetically modified pig that is able to produce manure with reduced environmental impact) and studerite (an arsenic-rich variety of tetrahedrite), but these entries aren’t to be found in Merriam Webster’s 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. (The word hashtag itself was the 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 for 2015 word of the year, 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 (see above).

Officially called “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 has partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emojis around the world, and "face with tears of joy" was chosen as “word” of the year because it was the most used emoji globally in 2015. SwiftKey identified that it comprised 20 per cent of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17 per cent of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4 and 9 per cent 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). 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 text, 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, Oxford Dictionaries did have some more conventional words as candidates for 2015 word of the year (probably to assuage old fogeys like me who aren’t totally enamoured by picture words). They included: ad blocker (a piece of software designed to prevent ads from appearing on a webpage), Brexit (a term for the possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, from British+exit), and Dark Web (World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software, allowing for total anonymity).

Also included were on fleek (extremely good, attractive or stylish), lumbersexual (a young urban male who cultivates an appearance typified by a beard and checked shirt suggestive of a rugged, outdoor lifestyle), 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) and they, in the singular (used to refer to a person of unspecified gender).

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. How, I wonder, do those at Oxford who chose this image as “word” of the year propose to list it their dictionaries?

Howard Richler’s book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in March 2016.