Word of the Year (WOTY) 2016: Part 2. This is not fake news!

At last, for your reading pleasure (or displeasure, as the case may be): the second part of the annual wrap-up of Word of the Year (WOTY) selections and related topics (part one is here).

It’s already late January of 2017, so all of this should have been settled some time ago.  Let’s blame this late post not on my procrastination, but on the fact that one of the sources on my ‘WOTY Watch List’ only released its final selection on January 25th. They’re dragging out their “People’s Choice” selection until the 31st, but enough is enough: I’ll add a postscript when that’s final.

The main reason I do this follow-up is to include the words nominated in various categories by the American Dialect Society, which doesn’t select a WOTY until the first week of January. Because the ADS is made up of people who actually spend time thinking about language, and because they look at words in numerous categories (10 this year), most of the time their list is more interesting and includes better insight into what’s really going on with English than most of the others.

This year, there were several nominees across various categories that deserve attention, for different reasons: how quickly they’ve risen, how rapidly they’ve fallen, what they say about the past year, and so on. I won’t touch on every category or every nominee, only several that I feel deserve mention (positive or negative).

Combing through in ballot order, there are a few standouts. “Deplorables” of course deserves attention. Users of it got grief for ‘nouning an adjective,’ but a word shifting from one part of speech (a noun or a verb, for instance) to another (an adjective or a noun) is perfectly natural. It happens all the time. It’s the language equivalent of an existing species adapting to make use of an open (or a new) ecological niche: if the need exists for a word in a new form, you’d better believe that people will adapt a word to fill the gap.

Post-truth” being on the ADS list should surprise no one. It’s not unusual for other WOTY choices to make it onto the ADS ballot, and this one was still buzzing around while nominations were being accepted. Personally, I think post-truth was essentially dead on arrival, but we’ll have to wait and see if it lingers with us. This month we’ve been notified of the existence of “alternative facts” by the new administration, so post truth may already be passé. It won’t surprise me if that bunch churns out a novel term for “lies” around once a calendar quarter for the next four years.

Also on the ADS list, “fam” might have legs, but it’s another one we’ll have to keep an eye on. As with woke (see previous post), I think this one might already be teetering on the edge of being acceptable only as sarcasm much of the time. “Tweetstorm” is interesting, as it’s one of those words which slipped in almost unnoticed. I suspect few Americans don’t understand what the term means, but I also doubt that most of them even see it as a novel use. It was very organic how that one came into being, and it might turn out to be very long-lasting simply by virtue of being so subtle (in comparison to many WOTY nominees).

Words in some categories leaned to the cute (“laissez-fairydust,” “gynotician“) or lacked creativity (“-exit“). Although “facticide,” in the context of the past year or two of US politics, seems pretty clever. It’s useful that the ADS did its part by shining another light on “alt-right” and “fake news,” but at the moment this seems to be in the ‘too little, too late’ category.

For what it’s worth (…zero?…) I have no opinion on the hashtag or emoji nominees, except to note that I think the novelty has worn off. But the ADS recognizes all WOTY discussions as largely pointless, so accept these in the spirit of good fun.

In the end, the ADS didn’t disappoint this year with their WOTY selection: dumpster fire. An excellent choice. You can review their logic but, really, what’s to question? This word definitely saw a lot more use in 2016, in exactly the way they describe. It was not consciously on my WOTY radar until I saw it on their list, but it should have been: when a word begins appearing frequently on a site as respectable as fivethirtyeight.com, where I encountered it many times last year, you know it has traction.

You can review all of the ADS nominees and see how they fared in balloting (there were clear favorites and clear rejections).

Macquarie Dictionary, in the meantime, went with “fake news.” Someone had to, right? Coming so late, they had the benefit of seeing an extra month or two of the year from a distance. They also had the benefit of being in that zone between the announcement (and arguable failure) of post-truth as a WOTY, and the end-of-year spike in the use of (and popular acceptance of) the term fake news. The phrase fake news is certainly not new, but the recent awareness of both the term and the assault on truth and critical thinking that it represents is a welcome thing. I applaud this choice.

Macquarie, by the way, offered up a huge list of WOTY candidates. It’s worth scanning the list as much to see what they were mulling over as to see how different Australian English is from American English (and both from the British variety). You can get a sense for what’s getting play in Australian pop culture, what keeps Aussies up at night, and see the back-and-forth between Aussie, American, and British English, in words that have moved toward Australia from elsewhere as well as words that might be coming our way from down under.

…I wanted to include some notes on LSSU’s annual banned words list here, but this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll split that off and post it separately soon. Until then, fam, avoid fake news and don’t start any dumpster fires!

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The promised follow up: Macquarie’s People’s Choice winner for 2016 WOTY was halal snack pack. While both strange (and strangely appealing), it highlights the distinction between the various ‘Englishes’ used around the world. This one seems particularly Australian (I haven’t seen it yet in the US). You can review the rest of the vote-getters and speculate on their future success on the Macquarie Dictionary web site.



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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