Language nerds worked really hard on that ‘Words of the Year’ list
It’s an odd thing to be part of a national end-of-year phenomenon, but I was, for almost a decade: I was one of the editors involved in choosing and publicizing Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. For a lexicographer who spent most of her time wrestling with the vagaries of how to define “blue plate special,” helping to pick the WOTY — everyone pronounces it “woady” — was an adventure filled with booby-traps and pitfalls.
On the one hand, choose something that makes a big, bold statement about the year in review, one that says the dictionary has its finger on the pulse of the people. On the other hand, choose something that isn’t too negative or too political or too naive or too arch.
Crunch the data on the most looked-up words and hope for something meaningful. Ignore the reality that, by mid-January, all this crunching and consideration will be forgotten by everyone except the handful of people who are involved in the Word of the Year announcements.
Announcements, plural. That we will have multiple Words of the Year to reflect upon is a given at this point, yet the Word of the Year as a phenomenon came into being much like words themselves do: slowly, incrementally, and from a variety of sources. Our first hint of the idea came dripping in disdain for words overused to the point of semantic bleaching. In 1936, columnist Weare Holbrook suggested a two-cent tax on the “word-of-the-year.” He sneered that “About once every 12 months the American people seize upon a certain word and proceed to work it to death.” A year later, writer Al Graham wrote a slightly jaded, tongue-in-cheek treatment of marketing buzzwords in the industry magazine Advertising and Selling. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the phenomenon.
But the temptation to seek out one single word to sum up our collective experience of a year proved too strong. Columnists and newscasters like Edward R. Murrow threw their hats into the ring occasionally, but it never quite caught on with the public. Not even New York Times columnist William Safire, the self-styled language maven who chose “freedom” as his WOTY in 1989, could make Words of the Year a lasting phenomenon.
For that, we needed the professional word nerds — the ones affiliated with academic institutions and dictionary companies — who, against the odds, managed to turn WOTY announcements into annual news events. Herewith, an oral history of the Word of the Year, told in the words of the people who know it best. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Allan Metcalf, executive secretary for the American Dialect Society from 1981 to 2017: It was entirely inspired by Time. I used to read Time magazine regularly, and it dawned on me that Time didn’t rely just on experts or just on the public [to choose the magazine’s Man of the Year]. Their method was simply looking back on people in this past year who were the most important, or significant. And I thought, well, we have some experts, too.
The American Dialect Society, an academic group for those interested in linguistics and specifically dialect, held its first Word of the Year vote at their annual meeting at the end of 1990. The idea was not necessarily to choose a word that summed up the general experience of the year, but to elect words that the assembled linguists and guests felt best fit the categories presented. Beyond WOTY, the awards included things like “Most Useful,” “Most Euphemistic,” and “Least Likely to Succeed.”
Ben Zimmer, head of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society: My first ADS conference was in 2006, and that was when we picked “truthiness” [as WOTY]. I was very happy to be there for that.
Grant Barrett, vice president of the American Dialect Society: I’ve been involved in the ADS WOTY in one way or another since 1992. What we want to do is get people involved with understanding that language change is interesting, it’s normal, and it can be fun. New words and popular words are the basic entry level of getting people into linguistics. It’s the 101 of “How do I get involved in understanding more about how language really works?”
Zimmer: When Allan and everyone started up in 1990, they saw it as a way to get publicity. And there aren’t too many PR opportunities for a group like the American Dialect Society.
Metcalf: We had about 30 people. We had open nominations, brief speeches in favor or against, and a show of hands for the vote — that seemed very appropriate, better than having ballots. No people were harmed by the choice of the word. So that was the beginning.
In the beginning was “bushlips,” the now-forgotten Word of the Year for 1990 that referred to insincere political speech (particularly that of George H.W. Bush). It appeared to be a coinage of Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s, and was clearly a play on a well-known term for nonsense. A complete list of ADS winners can be found on the group’s website.
Barrett: Typically, the WOTY vote captures these words well before the peak in the adoption curve.
Zimmer: You can see we’ve been tinkering with the categories over the last few years. The categories that Allan et al. came up with in 1990 worked pretty well, but we realized that we needed to retire a few of them. We retired Least Likely to Succeed, because, well, what does that mean? You’d always get into these arguments: “Well, that word has already succeeded, because we nominated it.”
Metcalf: We have about one hour’s worth of subcategory votes, with three or four words in each category, and that gets people thinking. Then for the final Word of the Year, we don’t just have four nominations [already] chosen, but invite nominations from the floor, and we allow more speeches.
Zimmer: In the limited time that we have, we’re trying to keep things focused, and it’s increasingly a challenge because more people keep showing up every year and [the conference organizers] keep giving us bigger rooms.
Metcalf: The key to winning a vote is to be a concise, eloquent advocate either for or against a particular nominee. All oral. Nothing in writing.
Zimmer: You do feel like people are really trying to consider the words on their merit. It’s not just simply a marketing maneuver. If the thing that strikes people is “because” being used before a noun or adjective [2013’s winner], or the singular “they” [2015’s winner], those are the type of things that linguists enjoy that might not necessarily be the easiest to explain. I know that because I’m usually the one who has to explain it.
Metcalf: [“Because”] was one I wasn’t thrilled with. But my preferences made absolutely no difference, even when I was presiding. It was totally unpredictable what was going to come out. The nice thing is that no people are insulted. There are words that get insulted, and there are words that get praised.
Barrett: When you get something like the WOTY vote, it’s like “This is the place I go where the stakes are lower. I’m just allowed to shout stuff out to the people on stage, and we can have a good time.” And it really does happen that way.
Metcalf: It’s a stunnin’ thing nowadays.
Barrett: But we have a different motive than the dictionary companies; we’re not selling dictionaries.
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Webster’s New World was the first American dictionary to formally choose and publicize a Word of the Year. Its first pick, from 1995, was “World Wide Web.”
Don Stewart, Senior Editor of Webster’s New World Dictionary: I started with Webster’s New World around this time of year in 1981. The Word of the Year was always the editor-in-chief’s responsibility at Webster’s New World. We had at the time and we still do have ties with the Associated Press [which uses Webster’s New World College Dictionary as its preferred dictionary]. So I think that was part of the angle.
We tried for a long time to keep it lexicographically serious. The Word of the Year used to be a new word, or new sense of a word, that we had been tracking for a brief while and that merited — on the basis of citations — special attention. Words that had been established in the language and already entered in the printed dictionary were ineligible. I recall once recommending “chad,” and you know about when that would’ve been.
Webster’s New World’s Word of the Year for 2000 was not “chad,” but “senior moment,” though the butterfly-ballot debacle — in which a ballot design that was intended to help older voters in that year’s presidential election instead proved baffling — was mentioned in press releases as a reason for this choice.
Stewart: Another editor remembers recommending something like “Taliban.” That was rejected on the grounds that it was not the kind of thing we would enter into the dictionary in the first place. It was considered too political. So my guess is this was probably early on in the process because, by the end, no dictionary thought anything was too political.
Webster’s New World’s Word of the Year ran from 1995 to 2009. Its final Word of the Year was “distracted driving.”
Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster: Our choice of Word of the Year in 2003 was driven by data from look-ups to the website. As we look at those early Words of the Year, like “democracy”  and “integrity”  and “pragmatic” , this data was all so new that we were really looking at the raw tonnage of which words are looked up. Those words had the biggest tonnage, which was why they were chosen early on. And people just loved it.
Katherine Connor Martin, head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press: The first Oxford Word of the Year, in 2004, was “chav” — a fascinating word [referring to a British youth subculture], but it doesn’t resonate on this side of the ocean. In response to that, the following year, a decision was made to have two Words of the Year, one for the United States and one for the United Kingdom. And as it happens, in 2005 the ones that they chose were “sudoku” in the UK and “podcast” in the US — both of which are totally valid choices for either dialect.
Jane Solomon, linguist in residence at Dictionary.com: Our Word of the Year started in 2010. The choices were completely editorially driven — people in the content department thinking about what the events of the year were and what are the words that encompass those events. So the process was primarily editorial until 2015. That’s when we really started thinking about methodology and took a full look at our trending [look-up] data throughout the year.
Helen Newstead, head of language content, Collins Dictionaries, whose Word of the Year started in 2013: By the end of the year, we have such an embarrassment of riches from our collection and monitoring of words that it seems a pity not to share it more widely.
Sokolowski: In the early years, we didn’t know how to read the data, and we were doing everything in this earnest, naive way.
Martin: Sometimes we’ve made choices that, in retrospect, were prescient — “wow, I can’t believe we were on to that already.” In 2007, “locavore” was the US Word of the Year. In 2007, that was a very new word, and so we were catching something that was taking off.
But sometimes you fail.
Solomon: “Ter—” how do you even say this? “Tergiversate”? [Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year for 2011] Do you know how to say this? That’s an odd word. It’s a little bit alienating if two lexicographers can’t pronounce it.
Sokolowski: In 2006 and 2007, we had readers vote. In ’06, Stephen Colbert put his thumb on the scales by promoting his word [“truthiness”] on television. And it worked — that word won. In 2007 we did another vote, where “w00t” won. [The double zeros signified extra excitement.] This kind of online voting is not as enriching as we might have thought initially.
Martin: Of course, our most difficult one was 2015: the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji. In retrospect, that was a great choice. It was really emblematic of something important. How do emoji fit into English? But it was fraught at the time, because an emoji is not a word. You do these call-in shows on the radio sometimes, and you just get yelled at.
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Martin: There is a mission statement about what the Word of the Year is about, and it says something like “the word has to be prominent and reflect the overall ethos of the year.” It doesn’t have to be new, but it has to be newly prominent in some way — but you can interpret that in many ways.
Newstead: We’re aiming to get people talking about language! As our shortlist is based on usage statistics, the words tend to reflect the social and cultural developments of the last year. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the events that shape our language.
Solomon: Listen, you can be cynical about the Word of the Year if you want. You can say this is just a marketing exercise. But it’s also an opportunity. What conversation do we think people should be having?
Sokolowski: People come to this expecting a sociolinguistic take on these words, but we leave that to the sociolinguists. That’s not our job.
Solomon: Honestly, I think it’s great that dictionaries and other organizations have different approaches. We all say something different about the year, and they often come together — like they’re companions.
This year’s Words of the Year are “toxic” (Oxford), “single-use” (Collins), “misinformation” (Dictionary.com), and “justice” (Merriam-Webster). The American Dialect Society hasn’t yet picked .
Kory Stamper is a lexicographer and the author of “Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.”