Think about the last time you felt good. Maybe you wrote a tweet about it. Because great.
Was it a bad day Has someone made you more unfriendly? Maybe the work was a total dumpster fire.
Ahh, those handy words of the year to help describe your life since 1990. It has become a celebrated annual tradition that is part of our collective recap of yet another past year. But it is also an important factor in cultural change.
“It’s a reflection of how language embraces the zeitgeist of the times,” said Ben Zimmer, chairman of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “We look for things that reflect our concerns, our national discourse and our thoughts.”
How the word of the year began
The Word of the Year (WOTY) began in the United States when then American Dialect Society chairman Allan Metcalf wanted to promote outreach for the organization, Zimmer said.
Metcalf modeled WOTY after Time’s Person of the Year, and the idea worked. Other organizations have since created their own WOTY traditions, including Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary.
While each organization takes a different approach to the selection of words or phrases – or even parts of words – none requires that a word be new or never seen before.
For Merriam-Webster, the winner and runner-up will be selected based on an analysis of the words from their online dictionary.
“To be considered, the words must be looked up in extremely high numbers and at the same time have a significant increase in traffic over the previous year,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor at Large at Merriam-Webster. “The words of the year shed light on topics and ideas that have piqued people’s interest over the course of the year.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) selects candidates from their language research program, including the Oxford Corpus, which gathers around 150 million words each month from web-based publications. Lexicographers use the data to identify new and emerging words and study how they are used.
2020: a word of the year like no other
Last year really showed how quickly words can change, said Fiona McPherson, editor at OED.
Suddenly, a remarkable number of new words and customs appeared. In fact, 2020 was such an unusual year that the OED decided not to vote for a single word of the year.
Rather, they focused on topics and wrote on different words related to those topics.
One of the main topics was of course the pandemic. The OED analyzed terms like lockdown, social distancing and super spreaders. But they also dealt with political and ecological terms such as anthropause, the global slowdown in human activities, and acquittal after President Trump’s first impeachment proceedings. BIPOC, an abbreviation for black, indigenous and colored, was another term.
Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society both chose single words for 2020: Pandemic for Merriam-Webster, Covid for the American Dialect Society.
“In 2020, it was immediately clear that pandemic was our word,” said Emily Brewster, Senior Editor at Merriam-Webster. “Searches for the word increased for the first time in February and interest in the word was high later in the year.”
Vote your choice
At the American Dialect Society, the WOTY process was different for 2020. Usually society meets face-to-face to debate and choose a winner. This year, due to the pandemic, they hosted a virtual event asking the public to nominate words before voting on a winner.
(The event was streamed live and is still available to interested wordmakers.)
“Anyone can take part,” said Zimmer. You don’t have to be a member of society. “We had a great participation,” he said.
In fact, Zimmer appreciated the inclusiveness of the event, among other things. When it started they were a much smaller group of established scholars.
“Now we’re getting all kinds of input from a wide variety of people,” said Zimmer. “We are trying our best to accurately reproduce the national conversation.”
By 2020, Zimmer would have suspected that the words they were thinking about would be related to the presidential election. For example, red and blue states were a past election year winner.
“Of course this year was unprecedented, which was another word that was nominated,” said Zimmer.
But COVID-19 dominated the national discourse.
After the World Health Organization mentioned COVID-19, the word was quickly cut off and used in all sorts of sentences such as “Covid cheeks,” “Covid hair,” and “Covidiot,” Zimmer said.
“It has become a substitute for the entire pandemic and societal impact that we will see for years to come,” he said.
While it’s too early to know what cultural changes will dominate in 2021, the pandemic is still heavily impacting the language. Zimmer wrote about the term long haul for long-term sufferers of COVID, and McPherson noted word trends for vaccinations and variants.
Whatever happens in 2021, WOTY will continue its tradition of marking cultural change – a tradition that cannot do without the occasional grammatical controversy.
For example, 2020 was, regardless, runner-up at Merriam-Webster.
“They are lookups [were] fueled by collective outrage over the existence of the word, ”Brewster said. “Twitter was full of people complaining that we had put it in our dictionary.”
But Brewster pointed out that the word has been in their dictionary since 1934. She added that she would have been grateful if whatever had been the worst of what 2020 had to offer.
Another notable past winner is the non-binary pronoun they have. Both Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society identified their new use as an important cultural shift.
In 2019, Merriam-Webster selected it as WOTY, saying, “It reflects a surprising fact: even one of the most common basic terms in the language – a personal pronoun – can get to the top of our data.”
Merriam-Webster added, “There is no doubt that its usage is fixed in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary last September [of 2019]. ”
The American Dialect Society has awarded them the Word of the Year 2015 and the Word of the Decade 2019.
“When a fundamental part of language like the pronoun becomes a major indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention,” Zimmer said.
The runners-up for Word of the Decade were Selfie, #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.
Jesse De Witt, executive director of digital product management at Merriam-Webster, said that while Word of the Year gives us the macro perspective on a year’s data, it gives us ways to find out what is happening now. On the Merriam-Webster home page, you can see the most important words in real time, updated every 30 seconds.
“You will find that some words are constantly looked up regardless of what’s on the news, while other words are clearly triggered by events,” said De Witt.
Zimmer noted that while choosing the word of the year is fun, it is often just the beginning of a word analysis.
“Afterwards we take some time. We’re writing down more scientific treatments of these words, ”he said. “We’re trying to figure out what the earliest use is and see how it develops. Very often things seem new [but] it has a hidden history. “
Zimmer said it was important work. Sometimes there are issues of cultural appropriation or terms that could have come from the African American language.
And right now, you can read some of that research for free through American Speech, a magazine published by Duke University Press.
“We’re trying to dig deeper and give a wider appreciation,” he said.
Can’t you get enough WOTY? Read these books for young people inspired by the words of the year.