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Words of the Years

If you want to know about American English, look no further than the American Dialect Society. Since 1889, it has been the leading (well, the only) association of experts who study the English language in North America—not just dialects but everything else.

Most ADS members are academics, but anyone with an interest in American English dialects, history, usage, and vocabulary is welcome to join. Here’s a link to the Society’s Web page, with information about membership, meetings, publications—and the Word of the Year.

Right after the end of each year, ADS holds its annual meeting in association with the much larger meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. That’s the professional society for professional linguists.

So it’s experts on American English and on language who will be gathered in Portland, Ore., this coming January 5-8 for the ADS and LSA annual meetings. And there, for the 22nd time, members and friends will decide on Words of the Year just past.

It began because of Time. That magazine has been choosing a Person (originally Man) of the Year since 1927. Its choice is determined not by statistical analysis or by popular vote, but by the presumably expert opinion of the editors, who have been watching the news all year long.

Why not get a similar decision about a Word of the Year from the assembled experts who have been watching American English all year long? That idea came to me in the summer of 1990, and it met with such approval that ADS has been doing it ever since.

It took a few years to develop the present arrangements. Originally the choice was a New Word of the Year, “new” being defined as too new to be included in any standard dictionary. Soon it became clear, however, that few of the prominent words of a given year were really brand new, and limiting choices to truly new words produced odd results.

For example, the very first ADS Word of the Year, in 1990, was bushlips. This, we were told (even in 1990 most of us had never heard of it), meant “insincere political rhetoric,” referring to President George H.W. Bush’s reneging on his pledge of no new taxes. After such experiences, we simplified the designation to Word of the Year, with Brand New Word reduced to a subcategory.

Over the years, Time has found it useful to expand its definition of “person.” In 1960, for example, the Person of the Year was U.S. scientists; in 1966, young people; in 1982, the computer.

Likewise, ADS uses an expanded definition of “word.” From the first, it was understood that “Word” would not be restricted to single words but could be phrases that were not merely the sum of their parts. In 1991, the meeting chose Mother of all . . . as Word (or Phrase) of the Year, referring to Saddam Hussein’s declaration that the Persian Gulf war would be the “the great duel, the mother of all battles,” extended by Americans to situations like “mother of all garage sales.”

And it wasn’t that long before the voters also decided that the Word of the Year could be as little as a Prefix. In 1998, e- was the WOTY.

Here’s how we do it nowadays.

First, all year long, we invite nominations (send them to woty@americandialect.org).

Then, on Thursday evening (January 5 in 2012), our New Words Committee (Ben Zimmer, chair) holds an open meeting to sort through candidates and arrive at a final list of nominees in a number of categories, ranging from Most Useful to Most Likely to Succeed and Most Outrageous.

Next evening comes the final vote. The meeting is again open to everyone, and the voting is also open, by show of hands. Before the vote in each category, participants are invited to make very short speeches for or against a particular candidate, and even to propose an additional candidate, which the group may or may not accept.

Finally, after the different categories are finished, the vote comes for Word of the Year. The proceedings are tweeted, and the final vote is announced on the ADS Web site immediately after.

It’s serious, but not solemn. Perhaps better than anyone else, these language experts know that it’s just a matter of opinion.

And it’s hard to keep a straight face when arguing for or against words like fauxhemian (meaning “hipster”) and skyaking (jumping out of an airplane in a kayak), two losing candidates for Least Likely to Succeed last year.

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