Words of the Year 2016

Dumpster fire copyHow do you capture 2016 in a word? That is the question we wrestled with on Friday evening at the Word of the Year vote at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society. We ended up with a compound because one word just wasn’t enough for 2016. As I have done for the past few years, I wanted to fill you in on the results in multiple categories (and there are some new ones this year) as well as highlights from our discussions of various words; the final vote counts are available on the ADS website.

Word of the Year for 2016: dumpster fire (“an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation”). To explain this choice, let me quote the Daily Herald (12/31/16): Twenty-sixteen “was, simply put, a dumpster fire, that frankly just needs to be extinguished.” Or NPR (12/29/16): “No matter where your allegiances lie, 2016 has been the emotional equivalent of a dumpster fire.” Or the Los Angeles Times (12/30/16): “For many, 2016 was a billowing dumpster fire doused repeatedly with gasoline. We lost David Bowie and Prince and Gwen Ifill and Carrie Fisher, among so many other artists, leaders, thinkers, and dreamers. We watched America tear itself apart from the inside during one of the most contentious elections in our history, all while witnessing far greater destruction in Syria.” You get the idea. The Daily Beast described dumpster fire as the 2016 campaign’s “most annoyingly pervasive meme,” but as the LA Times quote captures, it was more than just the campaign. And it has a compound emoji on Twitter too (captured in the image above). It came down to a run-off between dumpster fire and woke (‘socially aware or enlightened’), and there were powerful arguments for and against woke as Word of the Year. As one eminent colleague compellingly put it: “Only if you stay woke can you put out the dumpster fire.” But others argued that mainstream media is late in the game in “discovering” woke now that the word has been appropriated from African-American slang — and that 2016 was not so woke.

Political Word of the Year: post-truth (“belonging to a time in which facts matter less than beliefs and emotions”). While post-truth was an unsuccessful candidate for Word of the Year, it did take this category, winning in a run-off against nasty woman (‘epithet used by Trump addressing Clinton in the final presidential debate”). Advocates of nasty woman lauded its “semantic inversion,” wherein a negative term is turned into a positive term — in this case a label that many women adopted with pride (with T-shirts and coffee mugs to boot). As our volunteer colleagues worked hard to catch all the hands and provide an accurate vote count, there was some discussion about whether the actual count mattered in a post-truth era; just call post-truth the winner and it will be so, right? In the end, many seemed to agree that in its favor, post-truth is probably going to have a longer linguistic shelf life than some of the other candidates, which included: deplorables (basket of) (“epithet used by Clinton in speech about Trump supporters”); Pantsuit Nation (“popular Facebook group for Clinton supporters”); and unpresidented (“erroneous version of unprecedented in a tweet by Trump”).

Digital Word of the Year: @ (verb, “reply on Twitter using the @ symbol”). As a nontweeter, I had to have the younger, hipper colleague who was sitting next to me confirm that she really had just tweeted: “You can @ me as much as you want.” I was then immediately sold on this symbol that has become a word, spawning weird and wonderful formations such as @ing. The runner-up was tweetstorm (“series of connected tweets about a particular subject, often a passionate rant”), which just confirmed how unhip I am that I am not on Twitter.

Slang Word of the Year: woke (“socially aware or enlightened”). The use of woke among African-Americans to refer to being conscious of systems of black oppression goes back over 50 years. With the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the hashtag #StayWoke, the word has gained widespread attention; it is a very socially and politically important term as well as a controversial one in terms of its appropriation by mainstream culture. Another worthy candidate was fire, which is now a general superlative meaning “excellent, cool, lit” (just to use a slang term to define a slang term). Another slang word worth knowing is receipts meaning “proof” as in “show me the receipts.” As one participant pointed out, we need to ask for receipts more in a post-truth world.

Most Useful/Likely to Succeed: gaslight (“psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity”). The year 2016 had the power to gaslight across demographic groups, which is how gaslight won this category. A strong contender was chip as a verb, meaning “to insert a bank card into an electronic chip reader (as opposed to swiping it).” Some folks liked that this verb really is new to 2016 — although some Canadians in the room seemed scornful of those of us impressed by the novelty of the chipping phenomenon (which they do not call chipping).

Most Creative: laissez-fairydust (“magical effect brought upon by laissez-faire economics”). Let’s take a moment and appreciate just how creative the creation of this blend/blended compound is. We have the French borrowing laissez-faire, which is then blended (i.e., smooshed) with the compound fairy dust through a cross-linguistic homophone: faire and fair-y. How great is that? At the meeting, people credited the Austin journalist Jim Hightower with the neologism, and here is the word in context from a November 2016 article about the Grassroots Leadership Academy: “Yes, this ‘grassroots’ outfit has been set up by the gabillionaire Koch boys to train cadres of right-wing corporatists to spread their ideological laissez-fairydust across the land.” The other candidates: -exit (“combining form relating to departure, after Brexit (Calexit, Texit, Brangelexit)”); facticide (“killing or distortion of facts”); and gynotician (“politician seen as interfering with women’s healthcare through legislation”). Some years just being a clever blend like gynotician is enough, but laissez-fairydust raised the bar for 2016.

Hashtag of the Year: #NoDAPL (“hashtag protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline”). Again this year, there were several worthy contenders in this category, including #OscarsSoWhite (‘”criticism of Academy Award nominees’ lack of diversity”), #blackgirlmagic (“celebration of black women and their achievements”), and #pussygrabsback (“rallying cry responding to Trump’s ‘pussy’ remark”). Advocates of #NoDAPL noted how effective the hashtag has been in promoting the campaign and argued persuasively that clean water is one of the central issues of our time.

Most Notable Emoji: emoji_fire copy fire (“excellent, cool, lit”). Nominated by undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee, the fire emoji swept the field (so to metaphorically speak). I had wondered what the upside-down smiley face meant and now I know (or think I know) it indicates lots of things, including silliness, sarcasm, and irony.

Euphemism of the Year: locker-room banter/talk (“lewd, vulgar talk, euphemizing discourse about verbal harassment of and aggression toward women,” used by Trump to downplay the Access Hollywood tape). It was all politics in this category this year. There seemed to be a widespread sense that people did not want to recognize alt-right (“umbrella term for extremist racial ideologies including white nationalism and white supremacy”) as a winner in any category, even through alt-right is a very troubling and prominent euphemism. The compound fake news (“misinformation, hoaxes, and propaganda, especially as spread on social media sites to boost web traffic”) was deemed not very euphemistic given that the news is, well, fake.

WTF Word of the Year: bigly (“in a significant manner,” from widespread mishearing of Trump’s use of big-league). We had to start by clarifying the category, which Ben Zimmer, who chaired the meeting, described as “lexical items of questionable merit.” Or, put differently, words that raised a lot of eyebrows. Bigly certainly qualified in the eyebrow-raising category, and this fall linguists helped settle the bigly vs. big-league controversy.

Until next year in Salt Lake City.

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