Well, they’ve gone and done it. The American Dialect Society (ADS) chose their Word of the Year (WOTY) for 2014 over the weekend. Don’t feel bad if you missed it: there was absolutely no fanfare. (Aside from the ADS press release, this may have been the only story published so far.) If ever a WOTY selection received anemic media coverage, this was it. Not that it was an inherently poor choice, only that it’s difficult for the media to get their heads around something that many people don’t think of as a ‘legitimate word.’
I give the ADS a special place in my annual WOTY roundups for several reasons. An obvious one is that they get around to their voting later than anyone else — every other source I review announces their selection before Christmas, but the ADS doesn’t even compile their nominees until the first week of January.
Another reason is that the ADS has been doing this longer than anybody else (since 1990). They’ve got 25 years of seniority, while most other WOTY selectors have been at it only since 2000 or after. On top of those reasons, I have a soft spot for the ADS process, since it’s the most transparent and democratic: ADS members actually get together in one place, look over a list of nominees that they’ve put together in the previous days, and vote in open session. This process, of experts and peers engaging in an open forum, appeals to me. Maybe it shouldn’t, since the overall record of the ADS when it comes to selecting meaningful (and memorable) words of the year is pretty weak. But it does.
Let’s suspend the opinionated philosophizing for a moment, though. What was the 2014 Word of the Year pick by the ADS? With an overwhelming majority, 196 of 220 votes cast (89.1%), the ADS Word of the Year for 2014 is:
Yes, it’s both a twitter hashtag (#) and a phrase. Both are eligible under ADS guidelines, although this is the first time a phrase has won since 2004 (when red state, blue state, and purple state shared the honor). Hashtags have been on the ADS radar since at least 2012 (when “hashtag” itself was the WOTY), but this is the first year an actual hashtag has been nominated. There was a new ADS category this year, too, for “Most Notable Hashtag.”
As in most years, the other ADS WOTY nominees and words in other categories are interesting in themselves and definitely worth a look (even, second-amendment, and several others deserve special attention this time around). You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t follow that link.
Is #blacklivesmatter a good choice? According to the ADS it is. And like every other WOTY selecting organization (and individual), they have the right to choose any word they like. WOTYs, as I’ve said here many times, are primarily an attention-getting stunt and always a matter of opinion. What’s my opinion? If you’re interested, read on.
I’m going to put aside any discussion of whether or not a phrase with a hashtag (#), meant to be used only in written electronic communication, should even be considered a “word” for WOTY selection purposes. Let’s look instead at the criteria for selecting a WOTY. There are several, but to me there are only two real factors to base a WOTY choice on, and they tend to contradict each other (although not in every case). You can give these factors different labels, but let’s call them recent importance and future utility.
One can choose a WOTY based on how much it mattered in the year just past — its recent importance. Was the word in the news? Did it help shape the news? Does this word in some way define the year that just finished? In a nutshell: if we look back at this year from some point in the future, will this word be significant and help explain this year?
Alternatively, one can base a WOTY choice on how much that word is likely to matter from this point forward — its future utility. Was this new word important to the development and use of language this past year? Is it going to continue to be important and grow in importance?
Recent importance is fairly easy to measure. If one can come up with a list of interesting words and phrases (somewhat arbitrary) from the year just past, there are tools to objectively determine how much that word was used. Simple usage data isn’t a good indicator, however: how a word was used, what it came to mean (or symbolize), and how important it actually was are subjective. The raw data can’t answer this kind of question.
Determining future utility is even dicier: we can only predict how the future will look; we never know with certainty. But recent and current use can be very good indicators (especially if one has a good ear for language and carefully observes what’s going on around them). Has this word been created recently, or has it risen from obscurity to become common? Is it filling a niche that no other word adequately inhabits? Are people taking up this new word and using it unselfconsciously and naturally, or is this an awkward creation which people use because they have to, while at the same time hoping for something better to come along?
Our sense of how important a word will be in the future is intuitive, instinctive, and as much a matter of emotion as reason (and because of that, unpredictable and sometimes a monumental failure). Looking at past use is easy; it’s not only prose, it’s expository writing. Predicting future use? Well, that’s poetry, and as any serious reader of literature knows, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there, including stuff that was considered great in its day but holds no appeal now.
My tastes in WOTY are fickle. By the criteria above, I’m usually interested in future utility much more than recent importance. But I can be swayed: the choice of chad as the ADS WOTY for 2000 was a good one because it not only highlighted an obscure word that rose to prominence, it also recognized this word as a summation of so much that came to define that year. That word has remained a solid shorthand term for critical events of the year 2000 that continue to shape American politics and opinions today.
The ADS has been fickle, too. They’ve decided past WOTYs on both recent importance and anticipated future utility. This year, they went with recent importance. #blacklivesmatter is an overtly political choice. It’s fair to say that part of the rationale for their choice was to bring attention to hashtags as linguistic objects. But the main reason was to make a statement — about race relations, about justice, about civil rights, and about the lack of accountability of law enforcement in many parts of the country. Can I fault the ADS for this choice? Hell, no! All of those things are important to me, not only in a general and theoretical sense, but in a personal and practical way: I’m married to a non-white minority and while our son blends in where we live (a very diverse community), in other places he stands out. Anyone being treated differently because of how they look affects us all.
But when it comes to language, I stick to the criteria that I stick to. My personal choice this year will seem pedestrian compared to the ADS. You could accuse me of avoiding political controversy (although that isn’t my intent at all). Since all language is already, inherently, political, I don’t see the need to use a WOTY to make a political point (if the ADS chooses to do that, I fully support them).
My choice? I’m going with photobomb, which Collins Dictionary chose in October. I perhaps have a selection bias because I spend a lot of time with children, primarily in the 7- to 12-year-old range. That gives me an opportunity to hear some of the words which the English speakers of tomorrow are using today, and which ones they aren’t using. Last year, they liked “selfie” a lot, and continue to use it. This year, they have enthusiastically adopted “photobomb.” Both seem to have staying power.
Choosing photobomb might seem anticlimactic after two posts full of everyone else’s WOTY choices. Perhaps you’ll even think it’s cowardly, after the ADS stood up so strongly for #blacklivesmatter. That remains part of the beauty of all this WOTY nonsense: everyone has an opinion, and we’re all allowed to express them.
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Coming Soon: Now that the WOTYs have all been rounded up, it’s time to turn to the words that some folks think should be purged from the English language, never to be seen, heard, or used again. I’ve got a candidate of my own, but I’ll run down all the proposals of others I can get my hands on. Check back soon for 2015’s ‘black list!’