Many Words of the Year

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The American Dialect Society introduced the Word of the Year as a concept in 1990, setting a pattern that has been followed with enthusiasm by various dictionaries and lexicographers. The different Words of the Year are not exactly comparable. 


 To begin with there is the ADS who take nominations from the linguists attending the annual conference, and then vote on what is on offer in various categories. Their chosen Word of the Year for 2018 was tender-age shelter, the name given by the Trump government to the facilities set up to receive the children taken from immigrants crossing the Mexican border. It was the power of this euphemism as a political weapon that won it support in the ADS.

 In the commercial dictionary camp in America there is the well-established Merriam-Webster who, right from the moment they entered the field, took a different tack. They have an online dictionary so they checked the words with the greatest number of look-ups. I assume they weed out the perennials, like effect and affect, and pick the ones which are in unusually high demand. For 2018 they chose justice which had spiked in currency, particularly in relation to the special investigation undertaken by Robert Mueller on the involvement of Russia in the US elections. Justice is not a new word, but it was apparently one which the Americans suddenly wanted to understand.

 The Oxford English Dictionary used to be in the camp of those seeking the genuine new words but it seems to have shifted to the criterion of frequency in online searches, so that this year the editors chose toxic, as in toxic relationships. They conceded that the use of the word with this meaning was not new but it had been used a lot in the course of the year. This of course should make it the Cliché of the Year, but never mind.

 Collins selected single-use as its Word of the Year, saying that it had increased hugely in currency since they first noticed it in 2013.  So again it is not so much new as significant.  It can be argued that it is not a dictionary entry at all since it means no more than ‘made to be used once only’. It is transparent, that is, the meaning can be worked out easily from the two words put together. But significance trumps everything else and the images of plastic straws and cups polluting our oceans was attention-grabbing.

 Sometimes we are surprised by what different language communities regard as new. Collins lists vegan as a new word whereas we all know in Australia we have been using it for years.  The American Dialect Society lists cli-fi as one of its winners for 2018 but it was in Macquarie Dictionary some years ago.

 Finally Macquarie Dictionary has emerged with Me Too as in a Me Too post on social media or to be Me tooed.  Macquarie draws its Word of the Year from the words which entered the dictionary throughout the year and were included in the upload at the end of the year.  They have to have currency in Australian English so gammon for a white, middle-aged Brexit supporter would not make it into an Australian dictionary. Macquarie’s words are genuinely new and genuinely dictionary items.








Sue ButlerComment