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Words of the Year: Where are they now?

Why some endure, and others become embarrassing

If you’re a linguist, lexicographer, or just a person who likes to argue about language, the winter months bring a special treat. From November until January, a growing number of dictionaries, learned societies, and university groups release their picks for Word of the Year. Oxford Dictionaries kicked it off last month with “selfie.” Merriam-Webster just announced last week that “science” had seen the greatest increase in lookups this year. And in January, the American Dialect Society meets to debate winners in several categories, including “most useful” and “most likely to succeed.”

Word of the Year (WOTY, for insiders) season might be the moment when nonexperts engage most headily with the process by which the English language rejuvenates itself: Why “Sharknado” and “Snowmaggedon,” not “Snownado” and “Sharkmaggedon”? Does the language need another variant on the word “leggings” (“meggings,” etc.)? Does anyone really say these things?

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But Word of the Year is more than a linguistic parlor game: It’s a snapshot of a year in the culture. And this is the perfect time of year to reflect on how good those snapshots turned out to be. A successful WOTY looks great in hindsight—the beginning of something big, or at least a resonant moment in our shared history. A failed one is more like an embarrassing Christmas photo with perm and reindeer sweater.

Of course, the goal of WOTY is not purely to be enduring (it’s the word of this year, not the word of next year). While Oxford Dictionaries aims for “lasting potential as a word of cultural significance,” the American Dialect Society is more focused on tracking ongoing language change, and thus seeks words that have been “newly prominent and notable in the last year.” This year, for example, they’ll be considering “Obamacare,” “cronut,” “vaxer” and “anti-vaxer,” and “bitchy resting face,” among other popular terms. “We’re not concerned with how posterity will view this word,” said Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer (and former writer of this column) who organizes the WOTY selection for the ADS. Still, looking back at the WOTYs that have endured and the ones that haven’t says a lot about what it takes for words to be more than a one-hit wonder.

When you ask members of the ADS, which has been choosing WOTYs the longest, which words of the year they regret, they all mention “Bushlips,” the society’s first WOTY. “Bushlips” spoke to a particular historical moment: President George H.W. Bush’s broken “Read my lips: no new taxes!” promise. But even back in 1990, it wasn’t clear people were actually using the term. “Even a couple years after, everybody was rolling their eyes going, uh, why did we choose that,” says Grant Barrett, a scholar of slang and ADS vice president. Another “classic” early failure, according to Barrett, was the 1995 WOTY choice “to newt,” a verb meaning “to make aggressive changes as a newcomer”—perhaps too obvious a successor to 1994’s “Most Useful” choice, “to gingrich” (“to deal with government agencies, policies, and people in the manner of...Newt Gingrich”).

Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College, started the WOTY voting at the ADS and is the author of “Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success.” He calls his criteria for new-word stickiness the “FUDGE factors”: frequency of use; unobtrusiveness (is it normal-sounding enough to become a comfortable part of speech?); diversity of users (i.e., can you say it at the dinner table and be understood?); generation of new forms (is it grammatically versatile?); and endurance of a concept (does it describe something that will continue to exist?).

“Bushlips” and the Newt verbs are good examples of words with poor “endurance”—and perhaps low frequency, diversity of users, and other problems. And many technology and pop culture WOTY candidates have similar drawbacks: see 1993’s “information superhighway,” or 1997’s “millennium bug.” So far, “tweet,” the 2009 ADS word of the year, is being used increasingly frequently–but it is also linked to technology that could become obsolete. “Twerk”—not yet the word of anyone’s year except Miley Cyrus’s, but on Oxford’s runners-up list—is another with a potentially short shelf-life, depending on the lifespan of the dance craze.

Even if words don’t meet all of Metcalf’s criteria they can still look, in retrospect, like the right pick for the moment. No one may ever care again about the word for the scored bits of punched paper ballots, but “chad,” ADS’s word of the year in 2000, was indisputably the correct choice at the time.

Looking back, however, it’s striking how many of ADS and Oxford WOTYs have stuck around. “Metrosexual” (ADS, 2003), for instance, is still in use and has generated new forms (“metrosexuality”). Like many words that last, Metcalf says, it seems like it “should’ve already been there.”

So what are the prospects for “selfie”? (We’re pretty sure “science” isn’t going away.) Critics wasted no time in proclaiming Oxford’s word of the year a silly fad; as Daniel Menaker wrote in The New York Times, “selfie” “seems like an embarrassing word to me, on the baby-talk side of talk, and destined for the etymological trash basket that is already brimming with ‘jeggings,’ ‘man cave,’ ‘chillax,’ ‘locovore,’ etc.”

But “selfie” actually has a lot going for it. On Google Trends, while “twerk” appears to have peaked, “selfie” is gathering steam. Where Menaker finds it embarrassing, Metcalf sees it as both unobtrusive and “cute,” he said. The list of variants is endless—“unselfie,” “helfie” (self-portrait with hair), “shelfie” (with bookshelves). Whatever anyone says about “selfie” as an emblem of our narcissistic society, the self-portrait has been around for centuries. So whether or not 2013 was the year of “selfie,” “selfie” could well be with us long after 2013 ends.

Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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