Hashtag. Metrosexual. Occupy.
Those three words have one thing in common – they’ve all been named “Word of the Year.”
Every year since 1990, members of the American Dialect Society have gathered at their annual convention – once called “the Super Bowl of linguistics” – to crown the word that defined the year. The linguists and lexicographers vote on words based on their predominance in headlines and widespread use throughout the country.
Anything considered a “lexical item” can be nominated, meaning multi-word phrases like “dumpster fire” – named 2016’s Word of the Year earlier this month – are fair game. The same goes for hashtags, prefixes, and even emoji.
Because each Word of the Year is closely tied with the era that spawned it, looking back at the list of every winner is like flipping through a yearbook of the past quarter-century. There’s the surge of Internet-related words like “cyber” and “information superhighway” in the early 1990s and a string of political words like “chad” and “weapons of mass destruction” that reflected the climate of the early 2000s.
More recently, tech words like “tweet” and “app” have dominated the vote, demonstrating how much the internet has influenced our language.
Take a look at every Word of the Year, and take a trip through time.
2016 — dumpster fire
The American Dialect Society chose “dumpster fire,” a metaphor suggesting a poorly-handled or out-of-control situation, as 2016’s Word of the Year on Friday.
The phrase saw a surge in popularity on social media to describe one of the most chaotic years in recent memory, which featured a bitterly contested US election, a stunning Brexit vote, and numerous high-profile deaths.
2015 — they
The word “they” has existed in English for nearly a millennium, but it wasn’t until last year that it started to gain traction as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. The flexible pronoun can be used when “he” or “she” doesn’t suffice for people who identify outside the traditional gender binary.
2014 — #blacklivesmatter
2014 marked the first time a hashtag was named Word of the Year.
With the vote, linguists acknowledged the power of hashtags to convey social and political messages, as #blacklivesmatter did in addressing the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police.
2013 — because
There’s nothing new about the word “because,” but it did see an interesting shift in usage in 2013.
It was around then when bloggers and social-media users co-opted “because” into a new, slangy construction – using it to tersely but vaguely answer a question. “Because science” and “because politics” were two popular ones. Why did the trend catch on? Because reasons.
2012 — hashtag
Twitter was created in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the word “hashtag” exploded in popularity.
“In the Twittersphere and elsewhere, hashtags have created instant social trends, spreading bite-sized viral messages on topics ranging from politics to pop culture,” Ben Zimmer, new words committee chairman for the American Dialect Society, said at the time.
2011 — occupy
The word “occupy” took on a new life when the Occupy Wall Street movement sprung up in September of 2011. The movement soon spread across the country and the world, as did the evocative word that fueled it.
2010 — app
By 2010, there was no question that the word “app” – and by extension, smartphones themselves – had reached the mainstream. The popularity of the word was aided by Apple’s increasingly ubiquitous App Store, as well as the company’s catchy slogan, “There’s an app for that.”
2009 — tweet
The advent of Twitter has given us many new vocabulary items, perhaps none more significant than “tweet.” By naming it Word of the Year in 2009, linguists recognized a new era of digital communication that was taking shape.
In an accompanying vote, the linguists named “google” – the verb, that is – Word of the Decade.
2008 — bailout
“Bailout” was the second of two words relating to the financial crisis of the late 2000s to win Word of the Year honors.
The seven-letter word gave newspapers, politicians, and average Americans a quick way to refer to the controversial rescue of the US financial system, and was considerably easier to say than “Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.”
2007 — subprime
The bursting of the US housing bubble led to the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007.
“Subprime” describes “a risky or less-than-ideal loan, mortgage, or investment,” and its selection as 2007’s Word of the Year reflected the public’s growing concern over the crisis.
2006 — plutoed
2006 was a lousy year for Pluto, with the International Astronomical Union famously revoking its status as a planet in August.
But the decision did spark a short-lived linguistic trend in the verb “pluto,” meaning to demote or devalue.
Stephen Colbert unveiled the word “truthiness” on the pilot episode of his show “The Colbert Report” in 2005, and the word quickly caught on with the public.
As Colbert explained, truthiness is the quality of preferring gut feelings and emotions to logic and facts. He used it to criticize then-President George W. Bush, and the word remains relevant today.
Colbert jokingly demonstrated truthiness in his defense of the word:
“Now I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word,’ Colbert said on his show. “Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true.”
2004 — red state, blue state, purple state
Anyone who followed the recent US election knows that in the media, Republican-voting states are considered red, Democratic states blue, and toss-ups purple.
But it wasn’t until 2000 that those colors actually became the standard. Before then, TV networks used varying color schemes to represent the parties with little uniformity between them. The weeks-long recount that year made electoral map graphics a nightly staple for news broadcasts, and media outlets settled on the colors we use today so as not to confuse viewers.
The red/blue paradigm was firmly entrenched by the 2004 election, giving way to 2004’s Word of the Year. The popularity of the colorful terms prompted a rising Democratic Party star named Barack Obama to declare in his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention:
‘The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states; red States for Republicans, blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.”
Two nights later, Democratic nominee John Kerry drove the idea home:
“Maybe some just see us divided into those red states and blue states, but I see us as one America: red, white, and blue.”
2003 — metrosexual
2003 saw the rise of the metrosexual – the heterosexual man who wasn’t afraid of fashion, grooming, decorating, and fine art.
The term spiked in popularity in part thanks to Bravos’s hit show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” in which five gay hosts made over a straight participant in various areas of his life.
2002 — weapons of mass destruction
A looming US war with Iraq set the stage for 2002’s Word of the Year.
George W. Bush’s administration used weapons of mass destruction – or the widely used initialism “WMDs” – as justification to invade the Middle-Eastern country, although no such weapons were ultimately found.
2001 — 9/11
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 altered the course of US history, a change that was immediately reflected in the language of Americans.
“9/11,” pronounced “nine eleven,” became a standard way to refer to both the date of the attacks and the attacks themselves. The term “post-9/11” describes in a single word the social and political climate that followed the tragedy.
2000 — chad
The little-known word “chad” rocketed out of obscurity during the prolonged aftermath of the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
As the public quickly learned, a chad is the tiny scrap that gets punched out of a piece of paper, such as a ballot.
Much of Florida was still using paper ballots for the 2000 election, and during a contentious recount, it became apparent that thousands of Florida voters had improperly punched their ballots, resulting in “hanging chads” (scraps with one corner still attached to the ballot), “swinging chads” (two corners), and even “pregnant chads,” (completely attached, but with a dimple where the voter attempted to push through the ballot).
Debate surrounding the validity of such ballots persisted for weeks, and Florida’s Supreme Court eventually mandated that each ballot must be considered on a case-by-case basis to determine the voter’s intent.
In accompanying votes, linguists voted “web” the Word of the Decade, “jazz” the Word of the 20th Century, and “she” the Word of the Millennium.
1999 — Y2K
As the year 2000 approached, “Y2K” hysteria swept the nation.
Programmers feared that the calendar change from “99” to “00” would cause computers to incorrectly process the date, plunging industries into disarray after the clock struck midnight.
In response to growing panic, President Bill Clinton authorized a Y2K task force, complete with Y2K advisers and a Y2K command center, in order to find a Y2K solution.
In the end, the only glitches reported were relatively minor, and the world continued to turn.
1998 — e-
The selection of “e-” in 1998 reflected the increasing popularity of the internet in the late 1990s.
The useful prefix, short for electronic, turned up in a number of internet-related words, including e-mail, e-commerce, e-books, and e-sports.
1997 — millennium bug
That “millennium bug” – also known as the Y2K bug by 1999 – won this year goes to show how long America was preoccupied by, and terrified of, the dawn of the new millennium.
1996 — mom
Before 1996, no one had ever heard of a “soccer mom.”
But seemingly overnight, these married, suburban, minivan-driving women became the country’s most coveted voting demographic in the lead-up to the 1996 presidential election.
“Democrats tried to woo soccer moms with talk of health care and education; Republicans tried to involve them in concerns about teenage drug use,” The Washington Post wrote. The New York Times and dozens of other outlets also employed the phrase that year, and Republican candidate Bob Dole openly pitched to soccer moms in the second presidential debate.
Thanks to the media’s proliferation of the term, “soccer moms” became a symbol for the modern female voter, in contrast with the “football moms” of yore.
1995 — TIE: web, newt
The growing popularity of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s ushered in the modern era of the Information Age.
With it, came the handy shorthand “web” to refer to the internet in general.
Meanwhile, newly elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the inspiration for 1995’s co-Word of the Year: the verb “newt,” meaning “to make aggressive changes as a newcomer.”
While the word appears to have had a short shelf life, a trio of lawmakers did use “newt” in the title of their report “Newting Philadelphia: The Effect of the Republican Contract on Philadelphia.”
1994 — TIE: cyber, morph
1994 saw another tie for Word of the Year, this time between two technological terms.
“Cyber” is the futuristic-sounding prefix early netizens used in terms like cyberspace, cyberpunk, cyberculture, and yes, cybersex.
“Morphing” is the digital effect in which one image transforms into another – cutting-edge at the time. As technology progressed, morphs became more and more realistic. The word got prime exposure in the title of the popular children’s show “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” which debuted a year earlier.
“Cyber” comes from the pre-internet science of cybernetics, while “morph” comes from the word metamorphosis.
1993 — information superhighway
The term “information superhighway” seems quaint now. But in the early 1990s, it was the go-to metaphor to describe the internet – a fast-paced, expansive network that connected you with people and places around the world.
Al Gore is credited for coining the phrase in 1978, as an homage to his father, who helped create the Interstate Highway System.
1992 — Not!
It’s hard to believe we owe such a simple joke construction to Saturday Night Live, but it was the comedy show’s “Wayne’s World” sketch that propelled “Not!” into common parlance.
1991 — mother of all …
In January of 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein referred to the Gulf War as “the mother of all battles,” a punchy expression that resonated in the US.
Pretty soon, Americans co-opted the phrase to refer to the most extreme or greatest in any given category, such as “the mother of all hurricanes” or the “the mother of all traffic jams.”
1990 — Bushlips
The American Dialect Society’s first-ever Word of the Year was a dig at then-President George H.W. Bush.
Defined as “insincere political rhetoric,” “Bushlips” was a clever combination of “bulls—” and Bush’s popular soundbite: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
More memorable was what linguists named the “Most Outrageous” word of 1990 – the newly-coined phrase “politically correct,” or “PC” for short.
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