Just before Christmas I promised I’d be back with a follow-up post on the 2015 Word of the Year (WOTY), once the American Dialect Society had selected its winner. They did that on January 8th and here is my promised analysis.
I usually enjoy this part of each year’s WOTY game because the ADS is the only organization that approaches this the right way. They’re not terribly scientific, as OED tries to be. They’re not purely data driven, as Merriam-Webster is. But they use a quasi-democratic approach, with their members nominating words in various categories and then voting on them. They even let the public get involved to a limited extent by accepting open nominations.
It’s both a serious event, as the membership is composed of people who actually work with the English language, and light. Anything can be nominated, and you can tell by the nominations (linked here and discussed in detail below) that the ADS isn’t in this to stick a knife in the back of a living language, but to celebrate new trends and quirks. They “get it” in the broader sense, even if they sometimes make what I think are poor selections in specific instances.
This year, they nailed it.
Their overall Word of the Year (also on Oxford’s shortlist back in November) was singular “they” as a gender neutral pronoun. An excellent choice, which I endorsed in the previous post.
I agree wholeheartedly with this choice, but there’s a point that has been overlooked regarding singular they. Much of the coverage last year focused on it as a special pronoun for people who don’t identify as strictly male or female, or who are in transition, or view themselves as something else entirely. That misses part of the point. Trying to make “they” apply only in these situations, or to have a special exclusive meaning, is a wasted effort. The value of singular they isn’t in restricting it to a particular use. That won’t work, as the word is too well established in its new sense already. The real value is recognizing it as a singular pronoun of true neutrality.
This fight’s been going on for a long time — the ADS cites examples in Chaucer, over 600 years ago — and it will continue. Some will hate this usage in 50 years. Some, who haven’t even been born yet, might still hate it in a century. But it’s here to stay. Even those of us who endorse it will still have issues: I edit and write for a living, and since blogging about singular they last month I’ve encountered it in places where I had to stop and think hard about the wording. A “he or she” construction can be awkward. But singular they can be just as awkward (or worse) in some situations. You also need to be aware of your audience: some readers will find singular they repulsive.
In conversation, singular they has already won. In casual writing…it hasn’t quite emerged victorious, but it’s getting there. In formal writing, it still has a long climb. The best advice I can give is this: don’t be uptight about it. When you write it, deliberately or unconsciously, in a first draft don’t worry. Let it ferment until you return for revision, and then think about how well it fits. As Geoff Nunberg suggests in this excellent piece, don’t agonize over correction. If it works, keep it. If it doesn’t, for reasons of audience, smoothness of reading, formality, or any other concern, then revise it out and move on. You’ll get more comfortable with this over time.
Besides Word of the Year, ADS named winners in nine other categories. I’ll dismiss two (Most Notable Hashtag and Most Notable Emoji) because they don’t fit in this discussion.
Their Least Likely to Succeed category was a shoe-in, with most candidates being dreadful. The ‘winner’ was “sitbit,” closely followed by “hoverboard.” I agree with sitbit (I’d seen or heard it only once before this ballot), but hoverboard didn’t belong in this category. While the devices known as hoverboards have had attention because of spectacular failures the past month or two, the three different types of devices the word applies to are going to be with us for a while: the fictional hoverboard from the Back to the Future films; the mini-segway hoverboard in the news; and the electromagnetic hoverboards seen in prototype the past couple of years
Most Likely to Succeed went to a new verb sense of “ghost,” meaning to “abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially online.” It handily won the category, but I think the jury’s still out. It’s got a cloak of trendiness, and might not survive. On the other hand, “on fleek” got the treatment it deserved. I have a suspicion this word won’t die out, but I also won’t be surprised if both its definition and use mutate in the near future. “CRISPR” was a distant second in this category, which surprised me. Not because it deserved more (or fewer) votes, but because it’s a very technical term that doesn’t seem likely to gain general currency. Some of my work keeps me up with broad trends in science, so I’ve known about the crispr technique for a couple of years, but there was a sudden buzz around it toward the end of 2015. It might catch on, but my hunch is that it won’t migrate out of the biological sciences. We won’t have much call for it in dinner table conversation.
“Netflix and chill,” took Most Euphemistic by a landslide. I’d been aware of this phrase for most of the year, but hadn’t thought it widespread enough to show up here, or to win so handily. Had I been voting, I would have joined the lone ADS voter who supported “af” (short for “as fuck“). I would’ve approached this with humor, though: af’s nature works simultaneously for it and against it as a euphemism. If you use “af” your audience is going to know what it stands for. But depending on who that audience is, they’ll either expect you to actually say “as fuck” or they’ll expect you to never make any reference to “as fuck” at all. “Af” tends to undermine itself, except when used for ironic or humorous effect. That seems too limiting for large-scale adoption.
And as a euphemism, ounce for ounce, “af” doesn’t pull it’s weight. Successful euphemisms roll off the tongue and are (usually) visually or linguistically more interesting than the idea they stand in for. “Af” doesn’t work so well by that measure. While it would have gotten my vote, it’s probably not destined for greatness.
Most Outrageous. The ADS crammed plenty of outrage into this category, but I have no strong opinion on any of the nominees. I’d noticed “fuckboi/y” being used online a lot this past year, but it seems to have faded. “Schlong” made me chuckle because it’s not timely, even with this alleged “new” verb sense…1988 is calling, and it wants this word back.
The Most Unnecessary category usually has strong contenders and this was a standout year. All the nominees were truly unnecessary. While “manbun” easily claimed victory, any could have grabbed the top honor. “Dadbod” is ugly to the ear and a contrived concept groping for traction. “Trigger warning” might have been the one to get my vote. The ADS seems to have recognized that the use of “trigger warning” has gotten out of hand. Its continued creep into daily life, especially online and in academia, is not a good thing. Rather than say more, check out this great article at Buzzfeed by Ali Vingiano which covers its history and more recent abuse. For additional information on this controversy, Tyler Kingkade at the Huffington Post summed up a recent report on the use of trigger warnings in academic settings.
Most Creative was a disappointing category this year. No nominee deserved to win. The victor, “ammosexual,” can only claim amusement value. I might’ve put my weight behind “adult” as a verb. When I’ve seen it used this way, “adult” has sometimes been surprisingly effective (but sometimes its use has been strained and artificial).
Finally, in Most Useful, singular “they” pulled off a two-fer, dominating in a single round of balloting. To be fair, the competition wasn’t very strong: “mic drop” had an impressive start but steadily lost effectiveness as the year went on; “microaggression” suffered from too much controversy; and “shade” (presumably both a noun and a verb in this new sense) never showed much strength. The strongest other contender was “zero fucks given,” which has — at least for the time being — established a place for itself online (as with “af” above). I haven’t heard it used in speech yet, but I encounter the ancestral forms (“I don’t give a fuck” and other variants) often enough. How well this particular form will do long term is anyone’s guess, but it was popular in 2015.
And that, I believe, is that. Another year of the modern English language has been put behind us, in less than 1600 words.
In my next post, I plan to make an effort to wade through the entries on that other January tradition, the annual “banished words” list. Until then, keep using every word you want with impunity, and see if you can find a place for some of the ones discussed above.