WOTY (Word of the Year) 2013 — 2 of 2

A couple weeks back I posted just about all you never wanted to know about 2013’s Word of the Year (WOTY) according to various sources. This is the follow-up post, reviewing one major source that was left out (Global Language Monitor) and the final word (no pun intended there) from the American Dialect Society, which met over the first weekend of January and disgorged their winner.

The ADS winner is… Well, let’s get to that in a minute. First let’s look at Global Language Monitor’s choice. I slighted them in the first post, and they should have been included.

“Slighted” might be a bit too strong. It’s true that I left them out, but that was primarily because my WOTY post was already too long. Since they chose to reveal their choice for word of the year more than eight full weeks before the year was over, I didn’t feel much guilt in leaving them out of the first round. WOTY lists are almost purely for getting attention, but that grab was more blatant than most.

GLM offers two lists that are of interest to us: “Top Words of the Year” and “Top Phrases” of the year (“Top Names” can be safely ignored in this discussion). While each list has a “#1,” it’s the depth of these lists that makes them interesting: 20 words and 15 phrases were listed this year. For some of these words, it’s almost laughable to claim that they had any importance at all. But others did matter: the political words (surveillance, drones, deficit, sequestration, filibuster, etc.) have a good claim, as does twerk (for its obvious celebrity status) and fail (although it was probably a better choice a year ago).

Interesting on their list is hashtag — because that was the ADS choice for word of the year for 2012.

The biggest mystery to me is how “404” made their list at all, let alone came out on top. “404” strikes me simply as…so 1998. And I say that with all sincerity: back then, I worked in IT, and there were already people who would use 404 as shorthand for some kind of failure. (Other number codes were not unheard of: we sometimes used one that might have been unique to our office, “399,” which was the sequence of options in our voice mail system for ‘fast forward, delete, confirm deletion’; it was used to indicate that you were ignoring someone’s calls, as in “Steve? Oh, I 399’ed him.”)

404 isn’t even as common (proportionally) on the Internet as it used to be. Back then, you could hardly browse for more than a few minutes without encountering a dead link and a 404 error; these days, I sometimes go weeks without stumbling into one.

GLM’s assertion that 404 is extremely popular or common seems bizarre to me, and I don’t say that without some investigation. GLM claims to use proprietary software to analyze over 275,000 media and social networking sources for a “real time” picture of world wide usage. But simply plugging other three-digit strings into Google will uncover other numbers that are used with similar, sometimes greater, frequency than 404. GLM’s algorithm probably has some kind of modifier built in, to give recent use more weight, but for 404 not simply to wind up on their list but to wind up at the top seems counter-intuitive at best.

I’m sure 404 is very popular in some circles. And in some ways, I applaud GLM’s method (relying purely on measurable data, not subjective opinion or voting). But when their lists show such weak overlap with all the others out there, something is probably wrong with the mechanism. If I do a WOTY wrap-up at the end of 2014, I’ll probably still include GLM’s data, but I may take it less seriously.

On to the final WOTY (as far as I’m concerned), from the American Dialect Society. I found their choices — they have multiple categories —  and their lists of nominees to be interesting for two reasons. First, because I don’t think their winner was the best choice, but, second, because I think their nominees are very much worth your attention (at least in the WOTY sweepstakes).

The ADS winner is “because.” The press release cites the new (or rather increasing) use of new grammatical “because” constructions, which is hard to argue with (the ADS explanation is very brief, but this blog post by Stan Carey is helpful and informative). The new uses of “because” have been on my subconscious radar for quite some time, but it was only after I read Carey’s post in mid November that I started to give it serious thought. I’ve read what linguists have to say on the matter, and I’ve become attuned to its use, in speech and text.

And, frankly, I’m not yet swayed. At this point, I’m open to continuing developments, but I haven’t seen anything to convince me that this is an important shift in usage. All the examples appear to me to be simple shorthand, where the use of because in a “new” way really isn’t new: it’s simply the case that something (“of,” “it’s,” “they’re,” “I’m,” “he has,” etc.) has been left out. This doesn’t seem to be terribly novel to me, and at the moment this use is very slangy. Slang, of course, can become entrenched vocabulary or grammar over time. I just happen to think the jury is still out on whether or not this usage will become standard, or whether it will fizzle out quickly.

I’m no linguist and don’t claim to be one and, yes, I know there is a lot more that can (and should) be discussed when it comes to “because” and new usage. This blog, however, is for my opinions (and the length needed to give because a full hearing is much greater than I want to go into). You’ll have to do a little research on your own to learn more of the arguments, pro and con, on because.

I said that other ADS nominees were worth your attention, and I meant it. While because took the prize, obamacare was the runner-up. I think the members who voted for that are on to something: if you take the WOTY idea seriously, obamacare carried a lot more weight in 2013 than any of the other contenders (I hinted along those lines in the previous post). There had been a little noise in the media that the ADS might go with “selfie,” but after Oxford picked “selfie” as its WOTY, the copycat factor probably pushed ADS voters away from it.

In the “most useful” category, “because” won again, and I agree with this result (from among the nominees). There wasn’t much competition, and even though I have a negative opinion of because as a WOTY overall, it has a flexibility that makes it a very good choice in this category.

The rest of their categories are more for amusement than anything else. Fatberg is my favorite from their lists this year (not to be confused with Fattburger). I had somehow missed this one until the end of the year.

That’s it for WOTY for 2013. I had originally planned to follow this up with a post on LSSU’s List of Banished Words for 2014, but after looking it over I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble this year (except to note that their voters hated selfie, twerk, and hashtag just as much as others loved them).

I find myself to be far more busy this month than planned, but hope to have another post up before the end of the month. Until then, keep reading and writing and stay curious, because language!

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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