It’s that time of year again…when everyone and his brother comes out with their word of the year (“WOTY“) selection, or their lists of words that were most important or influential in the past year. As I’ve done the past couple of years, this is my survey or review post covering as many WOTY candidates as I could pull together from assorted sources. The American Dialect Society determines their WOTY at their annual meeting during the first week of January, so their voting results get covered in follow-up posts. You can expect that post (2 of 2) sometime after New Year, 2014.
Let’s get to it.
You had to be good at avoiding the news several weeks ago if you missed it when the folks at Oxford released their WOTY selection. It was all over print and broadcast media, but just in case you missed it (or to refresh your memory) they went with “selfie.” That choice has gotten a lot of attention, positive and negative.
I’ve taken the position that Oxford’s WOTY is like Time magazine’s Man of the Year (“MOTY,” although they became less overtly sexist in 1999, when they changed it to Person of the Year). Which is, basically, that both Oxford and Time make their selections on a morally neutral basis, looking strictly at use and influence. Selfie rose to the top in the same way that Time selected Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin (twice), Nikita Khruschev, Richard Nixon (twice), the Ayatollah Khomeini, George W. Bush (twice…yawn), and Vladimir Putin to be man of the year: none of them were necessarily doing anything that could remotely be considered a universal good, but they were (arguably) the most influential people in world affairs in the years they were chosen.
By that measure, I’m on board with Oxford’s choice of selfie. It’s not an elegant word, it’s despised by many, and it might even fall out of favor very quickly. But if you pay attention to English language usage, it’s hard not to have noticed the rise of selfie over the past year or two, especially over the second half of 2013. Love or hate selfie, it’s seen heavy use and wide adoption this year.
Speaking of the year and the passage of time, there is one thing I give Oxford low marks for: jumping the gun. Granted, we all have to accept that most WOTY selections and lists are promotional gimmicks, meant to capture attention. Oxford succeeded grandly here, releasing their choice on a fortuitously slow news day, November 18th. Astute readers will note that there were still 43 days left in 2013. Some might consider this a quibbling distinction, but these numbers mean that Oxford considers a year to be made up of about 46 weeks, and made their decision based on at most 88% of the year. It’s actually worse than that, though: Oxford’s own data (shown in their WOTY post here) indicates they based this decision on only 9 1/2 months of data (ending in mid October). If anyone has doubts that Oxford was simply trying to get their WOTY out first and grab some attention, I suggest you haven’t considered the situation carefully.
I don’t want to waste much space discussing the other candidates Oxford considered. They listed 7 other words of note, of which only three (bitcoin, showrooming, and twerk) are even worthy of mention. If Oxford’s WOTY candidates were the only ones for 2013, it would be a pretty barren year.
I think Oxford made a pretty good choice with selfie, and the logic of ‘greatest increase in use’ is difficult to refute. It’s only the truncated year that bothers me. (To be completely fair to Oxford, their infographic page reveals that that this was a year-over-year increase from October 2012. But I call that calendrical cheating.)
How do Oxford’s WOTY choices stack up historically? Not bad, actually. At the bottom of their infographic page, they show their previous 16 selections from the past 9 years. Some have gone down horribly in flames, but at least 6 of them have carved out successful niches for themselves.
If you’ve missed all the for and against banter on selfie, this short commentary by Geoff Nunberg is probably the only piece you’ll need to read (or hear) on the subject. He makes a very good case, and I highly recommend taking a few minutes for it, even if you’ve already considered what others have had to say.
Merriam-Webster waited until December 3rd to release their WOTY winner and candidates list. Applying a philosophy completely different from Oxford’s, M-W avoided new coinages altogether and based their list on the increase in lookups of existing words within their online dictionary. The winner, with a 176% increase over 2012, is…science. Interesting on some levels, I suppose, but not in new word coinage or language use. The rest of M-W’s list is equally traditional: the other nine words have been in common use for decades, if not centuries.
M-W hasn’t always been this conservative: over the past decade: they’ve selected blog, truthiness, and w00t, and for a couple of years the voting was open to the public. But for the past five years they’ve taken this route — objective selection based on simple measureable data — and while it makes their choices less newsworthy than others, it gives them an awful lot of integrity (their word of the year for 2005, by the way).
The other major dictionary I reference a lot on this blog is American Heritage. When it comes to WOTY, it appears that they’ve decided to stay out of the fray entirely. The closest they’ve come in 2013 is using their blog to offer up a few lists of new words and etymologies that they’ve added over the past year. I give them credit for rising above the general WOTY nonsense (but it would be more fun if they got into the act).
What else have we got?
The Australian National Dictionary Centre went with bitcoin on December 13th. I’m not a big fan of this choice for a couple of reasons. One is that while its use has been growing, it hasn’t been growing a lot: it seemed to have a big spike a month or so ago, and has since plateaued or declined. The word will be around for a while (at least until what some economists consider the inevitable crash of the speculative bitcoin market), but it’s not yet showing itself to be terribly influential; it’s more of a topic for cocktail party conversation in most circles. The other reason I don’t particularly like the choice is that it’s very commercial. In a lot of ways, it would be like choosing “Frigidaire” or “Samsung” or “Cadbury” as a WOTY; at this point, bitcoin is used as much as a product and a brand name as a concept (I know there’s plenty of argument on that point — please keep your comments to yourself).
However, if “bitcoin” evolves into a generic term for any digital currency, then this WOTY choice could prove to be prescient. This could still be true even if bitcoin evolves into a negative term for a virtual currency. Overall, ANDC had a good list of candidates (some familiar from other lists), and none were completely unintelligible (despite their speaking an entirely different language down there).
On December 17th, dictionary.com (historically a bottom feeder of the online dictionary world) went with “privacy.” I’ve poked fun at this site in the past for multiple reasons, but they remain a good place for quick and dirty definitions (very dirty: keep in mind that they once topped the list of dangerous sites for browser cookie abuse). Privacy is actually a thoughtful choice in the context of 2013 (see their logic here), and I applaud it.
Collins Dictionary (online, and new to my WOTY round up) went with “geek,” December 12th, from a list that included the usual suspects (bitcoin, twerk) and others (phablet, payday lending). This is the only WOTY choice so far that I’ll call a failure. Their logic seems to be simply that ‘the definition of the word has evolved and, oh, by the way, we’re changing the definition in our dictionary, aren’t we cool and trendy to do so, and this is a way to draw attention to our coolness and trendiness without having to fax out a press release that no one will read, anyway.’ (Do people still fax press releases? Nevermind.) Collins goes out on a limb here, and it promptly breaks beneath their weight: asserting that a word’s definition has changed is not the same as the definition actually changing. (It also could become a near-perfect example of a skunked word.)
Collins means well, and they have a reasonably strong (if comparatively short) history. Their simple definitions are perfect for students and their site interface is clean and functional (although I take any site less seriously when the useful information is cordoned off by ads for Doritos, Dell Computers, L.L. Bean gift cards, and foreign language learning programs). But this choice was too self-congratulatory and not based on any obvious influence or relevance over the previous year. Also, I can’t believe anyone would take phablet seriously as a WOTY candidate.
This site liked “marriage.” The logic used to reach this decision is impeccable. Marriage is an interesting choice, and the shift in meaning it’s based on is sound thinking, and important to understand when explaining how language works. But I don’t think the case is strong enough. The shift in legal meaning doesn’t actually have the impact the writer is asserting that it does (or, maybe I just barely noticed since I live in Massachusetts). You could use similar arguments to show that words like “health care,” “insurance,” or “Obamacare” made an equal or greater impact over the past year (especially the past few months). This site’s other candidate words all should have made the more-publicized WOTY lists, and the fact that many haven’t shows how unbalanced the thought-to-marketing ratio is within most organizations that offer a WOTY.
This post has gone long, so to wrap up lets look at what the ADS has so far put on its list of candidates for WOTY 2013: nothing. They haven’t even released a preliminary list. They’re taking their time, and nominations will be accepted until a day or two before they vote. Let’s hope they have some interesting candidates. ADS has done some great work in the past, but not always: last year’s winner was “hashtag,” and if you think that was unspectacular, bear in mind that it was one of the most interesting candidates.
I’ll be sure to post a follow-up after the ADS announces the results of their voting. That post will also include my thoughts on the WOTY from Global Language Monitor, which has some interesting material in it, as well as any other WOTYs that make the news between now and then. You can also hope to see some thoughts on the annual “banned words” lists at some point in the next month or two.
Until then, take a few selfies while you’re out twerking, but don’t spend all your bitcoin in one place!
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I offer no explanation for why this WOTY post uses a Word Girl image, other than that it seemed like a reasonably good idea.