It is the beginning of list season – a pre-Christmas media ritual that involves trying to sum up the character of the year that has passed. Word lists top the list of lists.
Merriam-Webster comes out with a list of trendy words to sum up current culture, as do the Oxford Dictionaries (the family that includes the Oxford English Dictionary). Time magazine has just published a list of words it would rather not see any more (including, controversially, "feminist," which it deemed commonly misused; the magazine later apologized). Its list of candidates for banning included business jargon, such as "disrupt" and "influencer," but also social-media humour phrases like "I can't even" and "said no one ever."
A small U.S. university, Lake Superior State, has devised a clever publicity stunt for itself by releasing its own yearly list of "Banished Words" (also meaning overused or annoyingly hip). This list gets a lot of circulation and is the only time most of us ever hear anything about Lake Superior State University (it has 3,000 students and sits on the Canadian border alongside Sault Ste. Marie). Last year's winners were "selfie" and "twerk" (also suggested for banishment by Time); it also sneered at the practice of adding "-geddon" and "-pocalypse" to words denoting minor events (usually weather). All good fun and not lexicographically significant.
But the Oxford Dictionaries people, who want to maintain some dignity in the field of actual lexicography, also want in on the pop-media fun and so announced a "word of the year." This year's is "vape." As in smoke an electronic cigarette.
Well, good for vape, but what does it mean to be word of the year, exactly? Does it represent an embrace, a condemnation or just statistics? Oxford itself admits that the word is not at all new – vape was in fact recorded in 1983 by a futurist predicting this exact thing before it existed. But the lexicographers do actually track usage of the word across various media (unlike the media, which do not track anything in a scientific way) and noted a distinct spike in the past year. (It peaked, according to Oxford's graph, in April.)
Are the dictionary makers trying to define a society or predict a cultural trend with their chosen words? Well, sort of – it's sort of half science and half social commentary. The word is chosen from Oxford's New Monitor Corpus, a research program that tracks new words popping up on the Internet. Other strong contenders this year include "bae" (a U.S. term of endearment, so far not used much in Canada), "normcore" (deliberately unfashionable clothing) and "indyref" (shorthand for the Scottish independence referendum). The finalists are chosen by a panel of experts, pretty subjectively in the end.
And, although these words are seen as significant in their recurrence, being chosen for the list does not ensure that the word will be included in future editions of the dictionary. That acceptance process is a long one, not unlike canonization: A word must be seen to be not merely trendy but having staying power. So this press release too, like all the others, is pretty much pure PR – free content for media, also serving as a nice ad to remind you of how interesting all the words in the OED are. I believe this is what they call branded content.
That's not to say its lists are not a lot of fun. Oxford issues different lists for the United States and Britain, most years, and some of the British ones would be distinctly unrecognizable to American ears: The 2006 winner, for example, was "carbon-neutral" in the U.S. and "bovvered" in Britain, a word that only makes sense if you can hear it in a Cockney accent (it's most often used in the phrase "I'm not bovvered"). The 2012 British word was "omnishambles," a lovely one that never seemed to cross the pond.
We might learn more about a society's evolution, though, if we were able to list all the words that had been abandoned rather than embraced. The OED does not delete rarely used words, though – it just marks them as obs. (obsolete) or anc. (ancient). It takes so long to compile dictionaries – sometimes more than 100 years – that by the time they are printed many of their entries are already hopelessly dated.
I would love them to issue yearly lists of all the words and phrases recently deemed obs. – would they include "stationery store," "travel agent," "home phone," "ozone layer," "harmless flirt," "high art" and "privacy"?