WOTY (Word of the Year) 2014 — Part 1

While I’m not a huge believer in the whole concept of a “Word of the Year” (WOTY), it’s become a tradition for me to use a post (or two, or even three…) to collect as many of them as I can to see what the various WOTY committees have come up with. The whole WOTY idea is nonsense, but these lists are often useful for tracking interesting new words and usages that might soon become (or already have become) a common part of the language around us. They’re also, in my opinion, a good demonstration of how easy it is to be completely tone-deaf to how the language actually functions, so these lists give us a window on both the best and the worst of new coinages.

As they do in most years, Oxford jumped the gun excessively and kicked things off with the announcement of their WOTY on November 17th. I won’t harp on it for more than a couple of sentences, but in order to have their WOTY out so early Oxford is only able to use data from about the first 9½ months of 2014. For those scoring at home, that’s about 80% of the year. Which would be akin to deciding a US presidential election without counting the votes from New York, Florida, and California. Not simply calling them early, but not counting them at all. As in the past, Oxford’s given themselves a little more credibility on this early WOTY release by implying in their graphics that they’ve used a full year of data, beginning in mid-October of last year. That’s still a cheat.

I won’t be spoiling any surprises to reveal that Oxford’s choice was “vape.” This is the term for using an electronic cigarette (verb, to vape, to inhale from an electronic cigarette), derived from the fact that ecigarettes vaporize their nicotine content for delivery. It’s not from “evaporate,” which might seem a logical guess, considering that the “e” part (from ecigarette) and the “vapor” part are both present.

It’s not a bad choice. Personally, I think it’s something of a creepy word. Besides the association with smoking, it also rhymes with gape (are vapers mouthbreathing gapers?) and rape (no more need be said). But in terms of use Oxford is definitely on to something. I can’t pin down precisely when I first noticed this word (maybe a year and a half ago?) but I’ve noticed continuous (albeit infrequent) use since, especially in local e-cigarette advertising.

It does seem a little odd that Oxford stuck to its guns on this word, even though usage peaked in April and has declined since. And we should definitely give Oxford credit for finding a use of the word, in the correct context, all the way back in 1983 — before a viable ecigarette had even been invented.

It’s not like vape had a lot of competition at Oxford, though. Among their other candidates only “slacktivism” really has any traction (and I’m of the opinion that this, too, is only a flash in the pan). “Normcore” and “bae” have temporary legs, but I suspect no staying power. A reader coming across them in print a decade from now will probably have to grope for their meaning.

So vape it is.

As an aside, while I’m no fan of Oxford’s overly early WOTY announcements, they get high marks for not trying to hide their past “failures”: their 2014 WOTY infographic shows their WOTY picks for the past 10 years, and of the 17 words shown it’s hard to say that more than half a dozen have had any meaningful impact and several of them have (thankfully) not been heard of since. 2013’s winner, “selfie,” might be the only one they’ve truly hit out of the park.

Let’s see who else got into (or avoided) the WOTY tussle this year.

I had begun to think that the good folks at Merriam-Webster had perhaps left the WOTY game. They’ve been active participants since 2003 and got around to posting their “top ten” words of the year only few days ago. M-W might be trying to establish a reputation for being boring but solid, which is how I’d describe their list. It seems to be based solely on the frequency of word lookups in their online product, which is a logical and supportable (if dull) way to do it. By this measure, ‘culture‘ was their winner, with other straightforward words, including nostalgia, surreptitious, and insidious, filling out the list (full list here). Their choice for 2013 was “science” and, as with this year, probably had the opposite effect of most WOTY announcements (…no one cared…). Their restraint deserves recognition, though, since it’s based primarily on absolute lookups and not (as is, for example, Oxford’s) on relative increases over very small starting numbers. Even though this list was practically invisible in the media, M-W made up for it by getting some positive press back in May with the release of a list of some of the new words that made it into their 2014 edition. There are some good words here (and some long overdue ones) — take a look.

American Heritage, which steered clear of last year’s WOTY antics, seems to have decided to continue the trend. It’s because of little things like this (and other things, such as their often fantastic usage notes) that AHD’s stature has steadily risen in my eyes the past couple of years.

As well as this. Their usage panel isn’t restricted to academics, but includes lots of interesting people. If you don’t recognize the names of at least half a dozen writers on this list, chances are very good that you’re illiterate.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre is fairly new to the WOTY game (I believe 2012 was their first entry — someone correct me if I’m wrong). I’m never sure whether to include them or not, since I can’t quite tell if they speak English down there. They went with the colorful verb “shirtfront” this year, and I’ll leave it to the reader to click through to their definition. Their entire short list is decidedly Australian, and I don’t think that any of them will be coming to America any time soon (even if they credit early use of man-bun / mun to the New York media).

Dictionary.com, past target of both justified and unjustified abuse from me, took a “give the people what they want” approach. Fortunately, they chose more wisely than their comment thread would have directed them. They went with “exposure” and I have to give them credit for cleverness, as they found a solid link between four different meanings of the word and important news from 2014. Their little video has some nice artwork, too.

[For the record: While I was doing research for this post dictionary.com’s site assaulted me with two different kinds of pop-up that managed to slip past my browser’s protective features, proving that if they are not the dirtiest dictionary site on the web they are still the most annoying. Like a State Department travel warning, I still recommend that people avoid this site.]

Collins Dictionary, new to my roundup last year, released their WOTY so early that I missed it: in late October, timed to coincide with the release of a new edition. They gave top honors to “photobomb,” one of the few contenders that actually has some legs this year. In fact, I think I’d make it my choice, too, although I want to see what the ADS folks come up with. Their short list is also more interesting than most (and while I like the lyricism of “humblebrag,” it’s on a long list of words that I equate with accidental ignorance: the result of smart people making up a new word because they didn’t know one already existed). I thought Collins’ list last year (their first?) was weak, so their improvement in 2014 is impressive. Their regular blog has also been frequently both informative and entertaining.

That seems like a good place to take a break: that’s over 1300 words and I’ve covered most of the important ones, except for the American Dialect Society (ADS), which doesn’t release its list until early January. At that time I’ll review their selections as well as a few others of interest that I haven’t gotten to yet. Look for “Part 2” of this ramble in about 2½ weeks.

Enjoy the holidays!

= = = =

(Post updated to correct a few errors that slipped in due to sleep deprivation…)


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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