ADS Word of the Year for 2015

Meeting in Austin, Texas this week, the American Dialect Society gave the nod to the singular they as its Word of the Year for 2015. The group, which has its members those who study how English is used in North America, also dubbed the singular they as the Most Useful word for the past year.

The singular they is the use of that pronoun, which is usually plural, to represent a single person when that person’s gender is unknown or ambiguous, as in, “Not having met him or her, John didn’t know whether they would make a good copy editor.” As seen in this example, the singular they is a substitute for the clunky he or she construction. This use of they, traditionally viewed as incorrect by strict grammarians, can be found as far back as the works of Chaucer in the fourteenth century, but has increasingly become more acceptable since the 1980s, with many style guides now accepting it. That new-found acceptance, plus news stories about Caitlyn Jenner and the success of television shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, which feature transgender characters, brought this use of they to the fore in the past year.

Other solutions to the problem of representing ambiguous or unknown gender, such as proposed pronouns zhe and thon, have failed to come into general use. Pronouns are a closed class in the English lexicon, that is they don’t readily admit new members. Nouns and verbs, on the other hand, are an open class, readily adopting new words into those parts of speech. They, in fact, is the most recent pronoun to be added to standard English (not counting ones like zhe or thon that haven’t gained traction). They is a borrowing from Old Norse, appearing in English by 1200. She is another pronoun that was adopted at about the same time, being attested to sometime prior to 1160. (She was voted the ADS World of the Millennium in 2001.) All the other standard English pronouns date back to Old English.

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The ADS choice of WOTY is primarily undertaken for fun and public relations purposes. While the choices are informed by the scholarly work of its members, it’s not a rigorous academic exercise. The proceedings are often raucous and entertaining.

Singular they received 187 votes for WOTY. Other nominees were:

  • thanks, Obama. A sarcastic blaming of the president for a problem, (76 votes).
  • ammosexual. A gun lover, (42).
  • ghost (verb). To abruptly end a conversation, especially online, by cutting communication.
  • on fleek. Impeccable, well-arrayed (4).

Nominees in the Most Useful category were:

  • they (singular). (214).
  • microaggression. A subtle form of racism or bias, (62).
  • zero fucks given, ZFG. An indication of supreme indifference, (41).
  • shade. A subtle or clever insult or criticism, (11).
  • mic drop. A definitive end to a discussion after making an impressive point, (2).

Nominees in the Most Creative category were:

  • ammosexual. (153).
  • adult (verb). To behave like a grownup, (71)
  • yass, yaass, yaaass, etc. An expression of excitement or strong approval, (43).
  • lowkey (adverb). to a small extent, subtly, opposite of highkey, (38).
  • squad. One’s posse or close circle of friends, (3).

Nominees in the Most Unnecessary category:

  • manbun. A man’s hairstyle pulled into a bun, (207).
  • or nah. A tag following a statement indicating it may not occur, (34).
  • thanks, Obama. (34).
  • dadbod. The flabby physique of a typical middle-aged man, (16).
  • trigger warning. An alert for potentially distressing material, (10).

Nominees in the Most Outrageous category, the slash indicates a run-off vote:

  • fuckboy, fuckboi. A man who behaves objectionably or promiscuously, (127/173)
  • schlong (verb). To defeat soundly, (93/148).
  • white student union. A campus organization formed in response to a black student union (27).
  • sharewashing. A marketing campaign that treats services as “sharing,” (14).
  • fish gape. Posed expression with cheeks sucked in and lips slightly apart, (3).

Nominees in the Most Euphemistic category:

  • Netflix and chill. Sexual come-on, update to the come up and see my etchings of decades past, (315).
  • af, asf. Abbreviation for as fuck used as an intensifier after an adjective, (1).
  • Swipe right/left (verb). To accept or reject, based on gestures used on the Tinder dating app (24).
  • lit. Amazing, excellent, fun, (2).

Nominees in the Most Likely to Succeed category:

  • ghost (verb). (223).
  • CRISPR. Name of a gene-editing technology, (51).
  • on fleek. (23).
  • mom. Admiring term of address for a mother-figure, (17).

Nominees in the Least Likely to Succeed category:

  • sitbit. Device that rewards a sedentary lifestyle, a play on the Fitbit fitness tracker, (102/191).
  • hoverboard. Self-balancing, motorized skateboard, (82/106).
  • Berniementum. Momentum behind the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, (59).
  • Uber for X. Pitch used by startups to compare themselves with Uber, (33).

Nominees for Most Notable Hashtag (new category):

  • #SayHerName. Call to bring attention to violence against women of color, (178).
  • #LoveWins. Celebration of the US Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, (60).
  • #StayWoke. Call to remain vigilant and informed, used by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, (59).
  • #StayMadAbby. Ridiculing the plaintiff in an affirmative action case, (17).
  • #JeSuisParis. Expression of solidarity after the Paris terror attacks, (6).

Nominees for Most Notable Emoji (new category):

  • eggplant, used as sexual innuendo, (138).
  • 100, keep it 100, keep it real, (56).
  • heart eyes, romantic, passionate, (31).
  • information desk person, sassy, sarcastic, (31).
  • winking face, humorous, flirtatious, (8).

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