2016 Words of the Year

Publicity Stunt or Intellectual Exercise? 

Every year several dictionaries name a Word of the Year (WOTY). Cynics might say this is a publicity stunt, but I think it's a fascinating intellectual exercise and I love that at the end of the year, lexicographers have an excuse to deeply reflect on words that were significant over the past 12 months. Even more than that, I love that various WOTYs give people who don't usually spend their days obsessing over words the opportunity to engage with language in a meaningful way.

Here's a quick overview of the words various dictionaries deemed 2016 WOTY material in order of when they were announced. I encourage you to go read the blog posts about these picks. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a lot of thought goes into these:
Collins Dictionary — Brexit
Oxford Dictionaries — post-truth
Dictionary.com — xenophobia (I was part of making this decision/drafting this post)
Cambridge Dictionaries — paranoid
Macmillan Dictionary — elite
Merriam-Webster — surreal

And here is a visual representation of the tone of all of these WOTY picks combined (2016 has been rough):

a visual representation of the mood of 2016

The American Dialect Society WOTY Vote

The American Dialect Society (ADS) WOTY votes are always fun because it's basically a room full of hundreds of linguists discussing slang and combining forms and grammar innovation. Because X, #BlackLivesMatter, and gender-neutral singular they have been chosen as the ADS WOTY over the past three years.

Perhaps my most impressive and ridiculous distinction as a linguist is that I'm a member of the New Words Committee of the ADS. This year, as part of the WOTY Category Revision Subcommittee (WOTYCRS — I am not convinced this is a real subcommittee) I helped create new categories for the ADS WOTY vote. 

I'm not attending the ADS WOTY vote this year, so I'll make my nominations here. If you want detailed explanations of each category, check out the ADS WOTY page (I only list selected categories below, though many of my nominations could fall into multiple categories).

Political Word of the Year

When a slangy portmanteau becomes so official that it's used in headlines worldwide, linguists take note. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this term is that no one really know what Brexit means. Teresa May gave the circular definition "Brexit means Brexit," which has been lampooned by the press since she said it. 

This very British acronym means "just about managing." It's a rebranding of squeezed middle, a term that refers to lower-middle class people who are struggling to get by. JAM (or at least the expanded version of this acronym) was popularized by Teresa May and Philip Hammond in 2016. 

This word is especially interesting because of the conversations surrounding its usage. Many media outlets have written statements about the use of alt-right including Associated Press, New York TimesNPR, and the Guardian. Essentially, let's not further racist, sexist, and bigoted agendas by using a sanitized word to refer to a hate group. 

fake news/post-truth/post-fact/pizzagate/echo chamber/confirmation bias
I want to note that these words were important this year, but I have nothing further to say about them since you'll find far more nuanced discussions of them elsewhere.

I'm going to leave this to Ben Zimmer, who's already written extensively on deplorables. I will give you a quick overview of why this is on this list. Hilary Clinton called half of Donald Trump's supporters "a basket of deplorables." People were outraged. Clinton regretted using that description. Some of Trump's most devoted (and hateful) followers have "taken back" deplorables and proudly incorporated it into their social media handles since Clinton's original statement.  

I'm sick of this category.

Digital Word of the Year

Shitposting is when a person ironically posts hateful content in an online forum. It's used as a means to provoke anger and divert the conversation away from the original topic. There was a great episode of Reply All where they go into the rise and fall of Pepe the Frog, and they discuss shitposting in the process. Know Your Meme traces shitposting to 2007.

This is not a new word, but its meaning became very relevant in 2016 after a Tesla owner got into a fatal crash while using the Autopilot setting. According to the LA Times, the California DMV is calling for the following regulation for car manufacturers: "words including 'self-driving' and 'auto-pilot' would be banned along with anything 'likely to induce a reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous — that is, drivable without human interaction." So does the word autopilot suggest to "reasonably prudent" people that their vehicles can operate without human supervision? Tesla insists that this is not the case, though I expect this to be the subject of lawsuits in the coming years. 

Digi-double is new to me this year. I first became aware of it from a riveting article in Vulture called "Plastic Surgery With a Mouse Click." While digi-doubles are usually behind the scenes, I couldn't help but be aware of this type of special effect in the new Star Wars movie Rogue One, which featured a 19-year-old Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (and a few other actors brought back from beyond the grave, perfectly preserved). It's amazing. It's frightening. Before Rogue One, I saw a preview for the Mummy and I thought, "Wow, Tom Cruise looks young for 54...WAIT A MINUTE." Anyway, don't ever feel bad again if you take an unflattering photo. If you had someone smoothing out wrinkles, blemishes, and double chins you'd look amazing all the time too.  

Slang Word of the Year

The newest trend in selfies! Fingermouthing is when you pose alluringly in a photo with your fingers near your mouth. This follows previous selfie trends including fish gaping and duckfacing. If you're at the ADS vote, you should probably take a fingermouthing selfie in the spirit of NEW WORDS.

This is an adjective meaning "cool, fun, or stylish." Sometimes it's spelled out and sometimes the fire emoji is used (see below). Fire seems to have a comparable meaning to lit, which makes metaphorical sense. Early uses on Twitter are often about either music or food. Apparently Michael Chabon's 13-year-old son uses it. 

Most Creative

Br- and -exit
These make my list for the sheer number of creative combinations that have been created using elements of the portmanteau Brexit. To name a few: Bregret, Scexit, Regrexit, Rexit, Quebexit, and my personal favorite that has nothing to do with politics, but everything to do with Angelina Jolie filing for divorce from Brad Pitt, Brangexit.

As seen in post-truthpost-factpost-race, and post-genderAs Oxford points out in their blog post announcing post-truth as their WOTY, this is not the strictly temporal sense of post-. Rather it's a post- that refers to an era in which the concept expressed in the second element of the word is no longer relevant or significant. 

WTF Word of the Year

An Australian man patented a hamburger/hotdog hybrid (or maybe he only patented the bun—this is unclear to me). This begs the question: is a hamdog a sandwich?  

Paralinguistic Element of the Year

#blackgirlmagic (and Black Girl Magic)
This hashtag dedicated to amazing black women has both fans and critics. Black Girl Magic and #blackgirlmagic date to 2009 and 2011 respectively on Twitter, though they might have appeared earlier elsewhere. One writer in Teen Vogue calls #blackgirlmagic a movement. This was used a lot this year, especially following Essence's announcement in January that their February issue would celebrate #blackgirlmagic. It also spiked in Google searches upon the release of Beyoncé's Lemonade in April, and then again in September after Hillary Clinton said "...black girl magic is real" at the Black Women's Agenda Symposium Workshop. This hashtag and phrase has also been the subject of debate this year, which makes it especially interesting to a room full of linguists. 

This emoji was introduced in June 2015, and has since taken on extreme richness in meaning. I love it and I wrote about it in detail on Lexical Items.

Pronounced "lit" or "fire," this emoji is used as an adjective to describe things that are cool, fun, or stylish. Sometimes it's used to represent the noun fire, though that's not particularly interesting. 

🗑 🔥  
Garbage emoji + fire emoji = dumpster fire. This is used to describe an extremely negative situation, a shit show. I often see several garbages and fires in one tweet, perhaps marking the emphatic nature of this combo. 

The key emoji was adopted by DJ Khaled and his followers to refer to variations of the theme "major key(s) to success."

🍋 🐝
Lemon + bee (for the people who don't know about this, bee sounds like Bey, which is short for Beyoncé). These emoji are used in combination to reference Beyoncé's 2016 visual album Lemonade. I would be surprised to see these two emoji used together when Beyoncé wasn't being referenced. Someone do a study on this, thanks.

Tell Me What I've Missed

I keep track of words throughout the year, but there are plenty of words that slipped under my radar.  If you have any words you'd like to see nominated at the ADS WOTY vote, let me know!