The non-words of the year

Dec 23, 2015

We have all become used to the various dictionaries announcing their words of the year, but this year the selection has taken a surprising turn towards non-words of the year. To be fair it all started in 2014 when the Global Language Monitor announced that the top word for the year was the heart emoji. And then the American Dialect Society announced that its word of the year was the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. A bunch of linguists in America wearing their hearts on their sleeves came up with that one and we understood. What triggered it was the acquittal of George Zimmerman after the 2012 shooting death of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida. In 2014 there were two more such deaths in the US that gave the hashtag national recognition.

This year Oxford decided that its word of the year was an emoji. Having arrived at this decision they asked a consultant to find out for them what the most popular emoji was – it turned out to be the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji. Their big announcement was followed by a lot of explanations. They felt that emojis had become widespread and were a significant and new feature of communications. This is true and of interest to linguists. They had done their research to find the most popular example of this significant trend, but no, this particular emoji, or any particular emoji, would not be going into the dictionary because it wasn’t a word. But it was an important example of an important trend, albeit an example that would not be in the dictionary because the dictionary was reserved for words. 

That whole conversation tailed off into silence, but then Merriam-Webster came in with their word which again, wasn’t exactly a word but seemed to be important. It was the suffix -ism. Merriam-Webster makes its choice in a very high-tech way. The computer tells them which words scored the highest lookups in their online dictionary over the year.  The problem, I suspect, with this is that the computer, left to its own devices, would report the same words year after year. Affect and effect would be very high on the list because no-one can ever get them right. And there are other obvious candidates. 

So what Merrian-Webster look for is some significant trend in the lookups, something they can link to events in American society and something they can talk about in an interesting fashion.

In 2012 the word was socialism, linked to Obamacare. In 2013 it was science, linked to debate on climate change and education. In 2014 it was culture which they claimed had been an academic word of anthropology but now was a mainstream word, as in the culture of the office, the culture of sport, etc.

In 2015 it is -ism because they claim that a number of words ending in -ism have had an increased frequency of lookups during the year, so they decided to represent them all by nominating the suffix -ism. Since the whole thing is a trifle contrived, they might have caused less confusion by nominating the word which has emerged from the suffix, the word ism, as in a number of isms have given rise to public debate in recent times.

Macquarie Dictionary will be announcing its Word of the Year in January 2016. We let the year end before we decide that our haul of new words is finished. We have a basic policy that all the candidates are drawn from words which have been selected and researched and written into the dictionary during the year, so there is no doubt that our words are real words and have been accepted into the dictionary. We do sort them into common categories because it is easier to comprehend than one long list, but apart from that we let the words speak for themselves.

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Anna - March 1, 2016, 11:28 a.m.

Yep! Discipline in linguistics is a must. 'Where anything goes, nothing does.'

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Josephine-Anne - March 1, 2016, 3:33 p.m.

We seem to be taking on an awful lot of Americanisms here in Australia. For example, five years ago the word 'awesome' wasn't heard all that much here. Although that could be a generational thing. Now I here everywhere 'awesomeness'. I guess it is a word, but it drives me crazy.

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