It’s that time of year again! While visions of sugarplums dance in some heads, some of us in the language world see visions of ideograms and phonemes and other symbolic representations, depending on personal inclinations.
That’s right: the Word of the Year (WOTY) declarations are upon us.
“Why so late?” you might ask. Some of these have been out since October or November. That’s a perfectly good question and my perfectly good answer is simply that I prefer to make one post (or two) which collect all the major WOTY candidates, rather than many little posts across three months. Some react in the moment, but I prefer a more reflective approach.
I have a love-hate relationship with the whole word of the year concept. The “hate” part is easy to figure: the whole idea of a WOTY is pretty dumb, but even when it has meaning these determinations are usually made only to draw attention to whatever organization issued the press release.
What’s the “love” component? The WOTY idea actually tells us a lot about our living culture. It shows us not only what people are thinking and talking about, but also how they’re talking and thinking about those things. The reaction to the various WOTY releases is often more interesting than the releases or the words themselves. Watching people take sides and make arguments to justify their positions can be quite revealing. Some people take this stuff seriously, despite it being virtually meaningless.
Let’s get started.
Ever early in the WOTY game, Oxford Dictionaries held off until November 16th this year, (one day earlier than in 2014). But following the instinct to be controversial, they didn’t choose a real word. They instead selected an emoji (or emoticon), and a particular one at that: . Oxford cites usage statistics as its justification, provides a brief history and etymology, and offers some real world examples of the use of this pictograph.
Some will object to my characterization of emojis as not “real” words. Let me make my case.
I’m not saying that emojis aren’t words because I’m some stodgy old codger who can’t handle change. Readers of this blog know that I’m very much interested in (and support) changes to our language, whether those changes are in grammar, spelling, definition, pronunciation, or what have you. I might someday be convinced that emojis qualify as words. But that day hasn’t arrived. One of the reasons is because emojis fail an important test, which is that they be clear and easily understood when used in context. At best, emojis usually function as a sort of intensified punctuation when used alongside other (actual) words. When used alone, emojis are very problematic as words (a word being, to me, “the simple representation of an idea in a notation understood by its users”).
By my working definition, emojis have a good chance of someday being widely accepted as actual words. But until either all English speakers recognize emojis — and their specific meaning — or English becomes a logographic language (like Chinese), then it’s not happening. Oxford’s own definition of what a “word” is (via OED) is loose enough so that it can easily apply to emojis, so there’s no hypocrisy in their case.
However, Oxford’s explanation of their choice makes the point for those who would argue against it. They call their specifically chosen emoji () “Face with Tears of Joy.” Oxford says that the meaning of this emoji is…well, they don’t actually assign it a meaning. They sidestep that completely, never actually saying what this represents. They only assert that it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” It also “was the most used emoji globally in 2015.” These are weak criteria for choosing a word of the year, especially for Oxford.
One suggestion for this emoji‘s meaning is ‘my happiness has brought me to tears.’ It’s a valid interpretation. But not the only one. That’s part of the problem.
I would not be alone to note that in many contexts means something else. I see it often as “this made me laugh so hard that I cried.” That’s a very different meaning. The first one, above, suggests deep emotion, while the second is about a passing superficial reaction of happy surprise. But let’s not stop there, because I’ve also seen this emoji used to indicate emotional ambivalence (‘this made me laugh and cry’) indecisiveness (‘I don’t know if I should laugh or cry’) and bitter resignation (‘I should be crying, but I’m laughing’), as well as something much darker (‘I’m laughing out loud but crying inside’). One might, in Oxford’s defense, argue that all of these are subtle shades of the same meaning. I don’t agree. Nor does sociolinguist Lauren B. Collister who notes that “There is a cloud of meaning around each emoji that makes it difficult to pin down its exact meaning.” Precisely.
The potential meanings go on. Jessica Roy noted that it can be used for anything “from mocking a stupid friend to sharing a funny Vine.” Chances are that it’s been used to mean many other things besides. Every emoji, including , has some distance to go before we should embrace them as words. Their meanings just aren’t clear enough.
Oxford’s selection methodology is open to question. It almost looks like the process followed a path of choosing “some emoji,” then turning to an available data set (built from the self-selected users of a commercial app) to find the emoji that was most commonly used. It’s a big data set, to be sure, but the data is inherently biased.
Just in case anyone thinks that bashing Oxford over is undeserved, here is what Oxford itself thinks of adding emojis to their dictionaries: “There are no plans to add emojis to any Oxford Dictionaries.” Really now, you can’t have it both ways. If you rate it a word, include it in your dictionary. If you’re not willing to do that, then disqualify it from WOTY consideration.
But enough about . Let’s consider some other choices.
On December 14th, Merriam-Webster, a regular player in the WOTY game, went with “-ism.”
Really? Really. I suspect that in most years you could have turned the decision over to a high school English class and reached the same result. But something like this is bound to happen when your decision is based, as their editor states, on criteria that are tied exclusively to internet searches: “high volume of traffic and significant year-over-year increase at Merriam-Webster.com.”
But maybe I knock Merriam-Webster too much. Their WOTY post offers a nice (if too short) history of -ism (and also “ism” as a word by itself). M-W explains that this choice was their way of not choosing among the seven words ending with -ism that ranked high on their list (socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and terrorism), or from five other candidates.
Dictionaries exist for many reasons (primarily to allow people to learn new words and their meanings). But M-W’s list makes me wonder what has become of the English speakers of the world (or at least those who turn to M-W for answers). In an informed society, every one of these high-volume -isms should already be well understood by the average citizen. Which implies that their searches are biased toward users who are a combination of non-native speakers and the young or ignorant.
If nothing else, though, at least M-W uses consistent and measurable criteria and a solid data set. Not everyone can say that.
It’s worth noting that American Heritage, exercising discretion, once again stayed out of the WOTY game. Good call, AHD. They’ve noted interesting words during the year (a number of which are mentioned in this much-circulated NPR segment with their executive editor). AH doesn’t get much space in this WOTY post, but they’re doing good work over there.
The powerhouse linguistic aggregator, Dictionary.com, went with identity this year. I liked this selection after reading their thoughtful explanation. The timeliness of the choice was driven home when, as I was writing this post, a segment began on the radio in the next room discussing the meaning (and variability) of identity in contemporary America. High marks for having a finger on the pulse of American culture, Dictionary.com.
Dictionary.com didn’t provide a list of runner-ups, but noted their decision was based in part on a high number of look-ups for words related to racial and gender identity. They mention code-switching, singular they, Mx , and even microagression as interesting terms that touched on identity, as well as numerous descriptors which led them down the same path. Good job, Dictionary.com. Now do something about your pop-up plague.
Their write-up is good enough that I’m breaking with tradition to include a link to Dictionary.com. But PLEASE NOTE: This site is still borderline felonious in the way they attack your browser with ads and cookies and popups, so don’t say that you weren’t warned. You visit dictionary.com at your peril.
While American English is my primary WOTY concern, a few outsiders deserve mention.
The Australian National Dictionary Center (independent but affiliated with Oxford) went with one of Oxford’s also-rans, sharing economy. I don’t think they make a strong case, but read it for yourself.
Collins, a UK-based dictionary, elevated binge watch this year. Beating even Oxford to the punch (with a November 5th release) but not getting nearly as much press, Collins’ methodology is murky. But binge watch is well established (I heard someone use it on a talk show a few hours ago), so it has merit.
What about the runners-up and honorable mentions in the various WOTY contests? Sometimes they’re more interesting than the winners.
Oxford’s shortlist indicates that maybe wasn’t such a bad idea. They narrowed it down to a few phrases (sharing economy, ad blocker, dark web), one high-profile news word (refugee), one dead-on-arrival trendy word (lumbersexual), a bit of web-speak (on fleek), “Brexit” (which was kicked around as a contender on some shortlists earlier this year), and the indeterminate (singular) use of they.
Although it’s probably the best choice, singular they might never top anyone’s list. Choose your metaphor: it’s akin either to a tsunami, not crashing on the beach in a storm but swelling up to cover everything before anyone can react; or else singular they is the boiling water and we’re the frog, and by the time we notice what the temperature has risen to it will already be too late. Singular they doesn’t get the recognition it increasingly deserves.
“On fleek” also deserves a note: it’s yet another word for “extremely good, attractive, or stylish.” As if we needed another. Or maybe it means perfect. Or very fashionable. Or simply on point. It’s chances of survival in the wild are small: a word isn’t likely to get general traction when even those in the vanguard of use can’t quite agree on its meaning.
Merriam-Webster’s also-rans included marriage, hypocrite, respect, inspiration, and minion. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too critical, but I’m not sure it’s a good sign when words which are reasonably common and well known fill the list.
M-W builds their list on lookup data, so while I can poke fun at their results, their methodology is solid. If they can be accused of anything it’s of not being interesting (still not a crime). If you’re going to play the WOTY game, remember the rules: insightful commentary on modern language is a nice bonus, but the goal is to spark controversy and conversation (with yourself at the center, if possible).
ANDC’s other candidates included dark web, lawfare (which seems peculiarly Australian, so far), marriage equality, and periscope. They also considered (on their “long list“) agile, disruption, fleek, and Grexit.
Aussie English is full of fun and interesting words, at least to my American eyes and ears. I feel disappointed when they choose something bland and international over their homegrown options, such as schmick up, hubbard, hoon operation, or CUB.
I’m lukewarm to Collins’ choice for WOTY, but their complete shortlist might be the most well-rounded of all those covered here. Some are likely to be short-lived (dadbod, manspreading), but others are worth following over time: shaming (which I noted as one to watch last year), swipe, and transgender.
That about covers it for Part 1 of this roundup. “But this is already so thorough,” you might say, “what could you possibly cover in Part 2?”
It’s often anticlimactic, but I like to complement this post by discussing the one WOTY announcement that: (1) is democratically nominated (2) is voted on by professionals who work with words as part of their job, and (3) is not decided until the year is complete. That’s how the American Dialect Society does it, and they’ll be holding their annual meeting January 7th to 10th. I’ll post a summary shortly after.
Enjoy the holidays! Whether you’ll be home alone binge watching while pondering your place in the sharing economy, or establishing your identity by arguing various -isms with relatives around the Christmas tree, stay safe and have fun. If nothing else works, try this: . Since no one’s sure what it means, you won’t go wrong!