Language At Large

Word of the Year: Criticism & a Lesson

In a fight to the death, "vape" has proved victorious and is crowned Word of the Year. Here's why I'm not cheering.

In a fight to the death, “vape” has proved victorious and is crowned Word of the Year. Here’s why I’m not cheering.

The crowd’s roar slowly rose as the neologisms entered the arena. Once assembled in the word colosseum, the contestants said their last prayers to the gods of the lexicon and prepared themselves to fight. Normcore, donning an unremarkable yet ironic gray hoodie and jeans, gripped the crowd with astoundingly average fashion. Bae didn’t look quite ready to fight anyone (unless it was a battle of spitting lovers’ pet names), and Contactless seemed too busy trying to set up a phone for ApplePay to contend either. Budtender had “wares” to sell to other contenders as a bride of friendship, but Vape seemed only interested in puffing rings on a totally harmless e-cig. Indyref, painted up head to toe in Scotland’s blue and white, kept insisting on battling the UK, with Slacktivist eying his movements through social media with growing fanaticism.

After a long and perhaps not so bloody battle (maybe only a suffix or two was lost), the mighty panel of judges, high on Mount Oxford, silenced the crowd. A lexicographer rose. “Although there is a shortlist of strong contenders… “ his voice boomed and echoed, “it was vape that emerged victorious.”

When I read the Oxford Dictionaries blog on Monday, November 17th, I imagined this battle to the end quite vividly as I browsed the shortlist of words that weren’t bequeathed the title of Word of the Year 2014. But in my head, the crowd didn’t go wild when the winner was announced.

I had eagerly awaited the announcement and had basically counted the minutes until 5pm (I’m sure along with every over word nerd out there) until finally—here it is!!—the announcement that the word is………..!!!



…. Seriously? ……Vape?

Not quite the word showdown victor I had expected to emerge.

Begrudgingly I scrolled down to the “Why vape was chosen” section in the Oxford Dictionary blog post. Yeah, you’d better have a good explanation as why vape is the word of the year, I thought. “You are thirty times more likely to come across the word vape than you were two years ago, and usage has more than doubled in the past year.” Well, I guess that’s true. “As e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) have become much more common, so vape has grown significantly in popularity.” Well, yeah, I guess e-cig debates have become a hot topic this year. But still….

Seeking to confirm my pickiness and word snobbery, I took to other news reactions. Time’s interview with Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford’s dictionaries division, only fueled my angry-burning-dictionary fire even more.

Oxford’s 2014 selection was on another level a balancing act, countering the cuteness of their word of the year in 2013: selfie. Though last year’s selection went viral—and proclaiming words of the year is partly an exercise in getting free publicity—Grathwohl says they felt the selection needed to be a little more serious this year. That is, perhaps, why some of these words made their short list but did not rise to the top.

More serious?? VAPE IS NOT SERIOUS!!! (I may or may not have screamed this at my laptop at this point.)

Okay, okay, calm down. Clearly I’m doing something wrong here, I thought.

I looked up the Word of the Year (WOTY) FAQ page to see just how the winner is chosen. The combined resources of the dictionary’s research program (the Oxford Dictionaries New Monitor Corpus that scans language use), dictionary editors who flag notable words, and suggestions via the OxfordWords blog all contribute to finalist candidates. A panel of lexicographers and consultants to the dictionary team, and editorial, marketing, and publicity staff select the victorious word.

Additionally, the FAQ page notes that of all the candidates, the one eventually chosen is judged to “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”

I returned to the shortlist. Bae- absolutely not. People want that word to be banished in 2015, not celebrated. In all of my geekery and tech blog following, I honestly cannot say I’ve come across contactless more than a handful of times. Budtender and normcore are widely popular in the worlds of marijuana legalization and fashion, but likely to be more faddish in their newness and controversy than permanent staples of the lexicon. Use of indyref spiked during the Scottish referendum, but its relative isolation to a single country’s politics as well as one-time occurrence inhibits its value as WOTY. And lastly my favorite, slacktivism: though it describes an important phenomenon sure to plague us as long as we can “support” causes through social media, I suppose the actual usage of the word in day-to-day conversation and writing is less than that of vape.

When it comes down to it, I shouldn’t really be so butthurt. Vape is a word of serious import, in political, privacy, and health debates. Seeing as how popular e-cigarettes have become as a permanent alternative to the detrimental carcinogens of smoking tobacco, it’s likely to remain a fixture of the modern lexicon in our word age for quite some time.

Thus, this year’s WOTY became, more than anything, a lesson to me. Even I sometimes have to remind myself that, love ‘em or hate ‘em, I had better get on board with neologisms, for they are really do capture the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of the world around us.

And every once in a while, they make great gladiators, too.


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