WOTY 2017 (Part 1): We’re all complicit.

Ah, December. When a young man’s thoughts turn to college bowl games. And when those of us who spend a disproportionate amount of our time in the trenches observing and analyzing this thing we call the English language wonder, “what’s going on with the WOTY for 2017?”

WOTY (word of the year) candidates and ‘winners’ have been floating around since at least October, and those of you who have made it a habit to stop by this site have probably noticed that every year I do the Pokemon thing (“Collect ’em all!“—let’s call this “WOTYmon” from now on) and offer up a quick and far-too-often sarcastic review of what the various WOTY declarers have…declared.

It’s my self-appointed duty, and my Christmas gift to you: I slog through all the nonsense of each year’s WOTY declarations and summarize it, so you don’t have to. Whether you find any value in that or appreciate it, accept this small token. Happy Holidays!

Let’s get to it.

Early out of the box this year, Collins Dictionary dropped fake news on us during the
first week of November. While their selection came out early, the choice itself was late: Macquarie picked it last January as their WOTY for 2016. Despite their best effort, this choice—which would have been great if they’d made it ten or eleven months
earlier—was less fake news than old news by the time it was made. The argument can be made, of course, that it’s even more relevant now than it was a year ago.

On a more positive note, Collins as a language site gets more interesting every year. I used to view it as a distant also-ran where dictionaries are concerned, but their blog is worth paying attention to. Their WOTY shortlist doesn’t dazzle, though. It strikes me as a curious mix of words that were most prominent in the UK and online. Which is
certainly no crime, since they’re a UK-based publication, but I write this post up with American English in mind.

Oxford held off later than they have in recent years, not announcing until December 14th. Their shortlist included a few interesting words (broflake, kompromat, white fragility), but none that really rise above. Only two of the nine words they considered
seemed to see first use in 2017 (not a criteria for WOTY, but worth noting). Personal observation and experience is a lousy benchmark compared to hard data, but I had only noticed three of these words getting much use over the past year, and none had landed on my own watch list (in hindsight two of them—antifa and unicorn—probably should have).

Their actual choice was youthquake, a word they traced to 1965 but felt was worthy of top honors in 2017. I am frequently wrong about many things, but I don’t think we’ll ever see this word get much traction. For that matter, I don’t think it’s WOTY-worthy, either
linguistically, sociopolitically, or even by simple trendiness.

If I had to choose one word from the OED’s list, it might be newsjacking. I don’t think it’s going to transition into common usage, but it’s a concept that deserved attention this year. And will continue to.

OED appears to get more data-driven in its selection each year, but their methodology remains murky. This year’s choice, besides seeming almost conspicuously pitched to the cute and trendy, was also (they admit) a British English selection, hardly seen in the US. That’s just fine, and they’re welcome to it.

Late in the game…making it all the way into early December…was Merriam-Webster, which settled on feminism. They justify this choice well, applying their rules and selection criteria consistently.

Of all the short lists, I might like M-W’s the best, not simply because it’s data-driven but because all the words on it are…boring. Okay, what I actually mean is that they didn’t play games with new coinages and throw-away junk words (are you listening, OED?). Their methodology inclines them to list words that are already in their dictionary, not ones that
have just appeared. While that’s a drawback that has the potential to be…boring…it also grounds their list in actual, honest, legitimate user interest that (almost) none of the others can claim. It’s hard to criticize any of their words because they’re all supported by data. They also are the only list with an eclipse-related word (syzygy): I was rooting for something from the eclipse category to at least make some short lists this year. M-W isn’t usually my first choice for word lookups, but they come out well in the WOTY game.

As I have done more than once, this is the moment where I give special praise to one organization that resists getting involved in the WOTY nonsense. The American Heritage Dictionary continues to take a principled stand on this, and they deserve mention for it. The WOTY for 2017 according to AHD? There isn’t one. Move along people, nothing to
see here.

However, as in some previous years, their editor did a little bit with NPR in November to discuss some words that have been recently added to their dictionary. You can listen to it here. I can accept that haptics hadn’t found it’s way into their dictionary before now, but can you believe that MacGuffin wasn’t already in there?

Geoff Nunberg at NPR thoughtfully went with tribal. While in some years he’s made fantastic selections, the choice of tribal gave me a strong feeling of…meh.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good word and his explication of the concept is worth the quick read. I like tribal, and in my circles both the word and concept have had value for more than a decade. But I don’t think it’s got the level of use or prominence that a really good WOTY candidate needs. He also veers awfully close at the end to deciding that tribal as a word means nothing, which would undermine its selection. The more I think about his piece, the more I wonder if what he’s describing is getting closer to Cass Sunstein’s definition of partyism. But that’s for another day.

As in past years, I will go to Dictionary.com at the same time that I will warn you away from doing so. That site, while slowly improving in linguistic credibility, continues to be an open sewer when it comes to cookie abuse, adware, and other attempts to interfere with your browser.

Last year, that site got Robert Reich to do a little video announcing their WOTY (xenophobia). This year, their choice was complicit, which is a great word but maybe only an also-ran for 2017. Despite a brief 11,000% lookup spike, sparked by one of the most ignorant (yet painfully honest) soundbites of the year, it didn’t have much else going for it.

But…you know what? Complicit might really be a great choice. Every politician who supports and enables the current president and his policies, every public figure who approves openly or through their silence, every voter who thought this could possibly turn out well: you’re all complicit in this waking nightmare that has put the United States on a
path to becoming a third-world nation in a single generation. Complicit? Yes: it defines 2017. I’m down with this choice.

You’ll have to do the Google search yourself to view what Dictionary.com has to say about complicit and their other 2017 words of interest, because I won’t be complicit in linking directly to that irresponsible site.

The Australian National Dictionary went with “Access Denied — You are not
authorized to access this page.” I kid, but that’s what their web site was offering as their WOTY on the day I published this post. Their actual selection, according to published reports, was kwaussie, describing those who are conflicted about whether they’re Kiwis or Aussies. Can’t decide? Why not both?

And that, readers, brings us to the end of my WOTY 2017 Post (Part 1). There will be a Part 2, because the most interesting WOTY discussion, based on the several lists created and voted on by the America Dialect Society, can’t happen until at least January 7th, when the ballots will be counted. Australia’s other language source, the MacQuarie Dictionary, also holds off on making their selection until after the New Year. While not strictly English (just kidding, Aussies), I’ll mention their choice in the next post.

Space permitting, I’ll also go over some words I had hoped might make a few short lists this year: identitarian, xennial, ad-hocracy, ethnostate, rough sleeper, partyism, and all those great eclipse words.

Until sometime next month, enjoy your new words and happy holidays!


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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One Response to WOTY 2017 (Part 1): We’re all complicit.

  1. vearjohn says:

    “Fake” is a great word, as Anatoly Liberman shows us, https://blog.oup.com/2017/08/fake-fagin-etymology/ . Let is give thanks to our current great fake, Donny-boy Trumper, for re-awakening us to it, with his glib “fake news”. J

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