That's What They Say: Dialect Society chooses its words of the year

Jan 6, 2013

For this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say,” University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan spoke with us from Boston, where she was attending the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting, whose 200 members voted on their “Word of the Year.”

Rina Miller:         So the winner is?

Anne:     The winner is “hashtag.” It was a surprise entry. It was nominated from the floor. I must admit, I went in thinking “fiscal cliff” had this hands down. I thought there was no way anything would beat that, but fiscal cliff didn’t even make the runoff.  It was hashtag vs. marriage equality.  

Rina:      Why hashtag?

Anne:     The argument was that while the word hashtag has been around since 2007, this was the year of the hashtag. This was the year that hashtag was everywhere in the Twittersphere and beyond. It was creating social trends, reflecting social trends, making memes go viral.

Rina:      And what were the winners in some of the other categories?

Anne:     Marriage equality, which was in the runoff for word of the year, actually won most likely to succeed. And I thought it was a very interesting entry. The argument was that as the country has changed its attitudes about marriage equality, we’ve seen the terminology shift from same-sex marriage or gay marriage to marriage equality. And people pointed out that when textbooks write this up as a movement, it will be about the movement for marriage equality.

Rina:      Tell us about some of the other categories.

Anne:     One of my favorites, most years, is the most creative word of the year. And there were two terrific candidates this year. One is “mansplaining,” which is defined as a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience. It’s designed to capture a certain kind of male behavior. It did mean that during the discussion of this category, the men in the room had trouble talking because they could easily be accused of mansplaining every time they tried to say anything, even though it was a mixed-gender audience.

Rina:      That’s never happened to me, has it to you, Anne?

Anne:     No, never.

The mansplaining was up against “gate lice” -- a description of passengers on an airplane who crowd around the gate waiting to board.

Rina:      I love that!

Anne:     I loved it, too, and I particularly liked the singular, which is gate louse.

Rina:      And who doesn’t know that? Maybe we’ve even been a louse.

Anne:     And now we have such a great way to talk about it. We can say, “Look at all the gate lice.”

Rina:      There’s also the most unnecessary and the most outrageous categories. Those are more serious.

Anne:     They are more serious. And this year the same phrase won in both categories. It was the phrase “legitimate rape,” used by Senate candidate Todd Akins. And someone pointed out when we were voting for most unnecessary, that it came up again under most outrageous on the ballot. And someone yelled out, “It should win both.” And it did.

Rina:      And which word was least likely to succeed?

Anne:     That was a tie. One of the first I remember. It was a tie between “YOLO,” which our listeners over about 25 or 30 may be less familiar with. It is an acronym for “you only live once.” It came to prominence this year from the rapper, Drake. He had a song in which he talked about you only live once – YOLO – and I think there are a number of young people who got YOLO tattoos, which they are going to come to regret, because students tell me it is already very unhip.

YOLO tied with “phablet,” which is apparently a mid-sized electronic device between a smart phone and a tablet.  

Rina:      How about most useful?

Anne:     For the most useful, we had two combining forms. “Pocalypse” or “mageddon,” which you’ll hear people attach to things like “snowmaggedon” or “oilpocalypse” to describe a huge oil spill as a hyperbolic way to talk about a catastrophe.

Rina:      There had to be something that came out of the elections.

Anne:     The election phrase of the year is “binders full of women.” After presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that, it instantly became a hashtag, and many people have probably seen it circulating online. It beat “47 percent,” which was also up for word of the year. So both 47 percent and “fiscal cliff” didn’t win anything.