“The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in.” – Dennis Potter, playwright
If you’re a word person, then this truly is the most wonderful time of the year. Why, you might ask? Because it’s time for the various and sundry word authorities (i.e., dictionaries and the American Dialect Society (ADS) – yes, there really is such an organization) to declare their official word of the year (WOTY for those who follow such things). The timing, as well as the pomp and circumstance surrounding these proclamations, vary. While most publish their words in the end of the calendar year to which they apply, ADS is one of the only to issue its WOTY in the following calendar year, so we’ll have to wait until 2018 to see what its word is. The ADS is also proud to stake the claim for the longest tenure of issuing English words of the year, dating back to 1990.
Sign of the times
Not surprisingly, the words of the year tend to reflect what is/was on people’s minds at the time. Let’s avoid most (it’s impossible to avoid them all) of the more politically focused WOTYs and explore a sprinkling of WOTYs throughout the years from ADS:
If you have a word you’d like to nominate for 2017, suggestions are open to all at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first WOTYs of the year
Like the first robin in spring, the first WOTYs have recently been sighted. In the U.S., dictionary.com has declared its word of the year to be “complicit,” defined as “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” Across the pond, Collins, which is both a UK printed and an online dictionary declared its WOTY to be “fake news,” defined by Collins to mean “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” While it remains to be seen what other major publishers of WOTY (Oxford and Merriam-Webster) designate as their top words for 2017, neither words already published evoke a particularly positive mood.
Not just any word can be WOTY
The path to word of the year is not easy. According to Oxford Dictionaries, “Every year, candidates for Word of the Year are debated and one is eventually chosen that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.” For most issuers of a WOTY, an increase or spike in usage during the year in response to events is typical.
Collins describes their approach “by monitoring word output across all forms of media and (by consulting their 4.5 billion word database) as having most grown in visibility over the past year, reflected social and cultural developments, and gained traction for reasons both good and bad.” According to Collins, “fake news” saw a usage increase of 365% since 2016.
Never underestimate the power of the word
Words, like images, are powerful and can provide a record of the feelings and events of a time. Even seemingly innocent, neutral words can evoke (and provoke) strong emotions and reactions depending on how they are used and in what context.