ADS 2018 Word of the Year

Every year I report on the American Dialect Society’s selections for Word of the Year. There are lots of organizations that propose such a word, and I do so myself, but I generally only write up the ADS choice. That may be because the ADS, an organization of academic linguists who study language for a living, has been doing it longer than anyone else, and it may be because in past years I’ve participated in the nomination and selection process. But this year, I’ve been late to the process. (I was traveling when the announcement was made and am only getting to it now.)

As a result, I’m not going to give a detailed report, essentially regurgitating the ADS press release. Those interested in a detailed account of the vote tallies and the winners in all the sub-categories can read the press release. Instead, this year I’m going to write about what a Word of the Year means and the ADS selection process.

First, so as not to keep you in suspense if you don’t already know the results of the ADS vote, their Word of the Year is tender-age shelter. (The ADS defines word as a “vocabulary item,” which can include phrases, abbreviations, emojis, etc.) I think it’s an apt choice, nicely encapsulating the racism-fueled political turmoil created by and abuses committed by the Trump administration.

But in a larger sense, selecting a word to represent the entire year is an impossible task. No single word or phrase can do that. The world is too big and the events that occur over a span of twelve months are too diverse for a single vocabulary item to represent them all fairly. For example, the ADS selection, quite naturally for an organization based in and studying the language of North America, reflects an American bias. Someone living in Aleppo, Syria would probably not think tender-age shelter sums up their experience of the past year. But if one does not take the process and result too seriously, and the ADS does not, openly stating that theirs is far from an academically rigorous exercise, reflecting on the choices for such representative words can be fun and perhaps even useful.

I want to point you to an article by linguist Geoff Pullum on this year’s ADS selection process. Pullum succinctly describes the process and mood in the room as the words are discussed and voted upon:

a rapidly shifting pattern of ethical, aesthetic, and political sentiment that inclined people, apparently in an extraordinarily subjective way, to feel more or less warmth toward particular suggested words or phrases.

For those who have never attended the ADS convention, and that would be almost all of you, Pullum’s article is about the best substitute one could find.

I do, however, have to disagree with Pullum on his criticism that a word of the year should not be a phrase and that the ADS should apply a stricter definition of what a word is. Going beyond the fact that all such definitions of word are somewhat squishy, containing as many problematic corner cases as vocabulary item does, limiting the selection to lexemes that obey a specific orthographic convention of containing no spaces is quite arbitrary and pointless. Take for example two similar phrases: Bernie’s bro and Bernie bro. Despite their similarity, the former is not a vocabulary item, while the latter is. The first is an ordinary noun phrase, the meaning of which can be deduced from the meaning of its constituent words: a close male friend of someone named Bernie. The exact identity of said Bernie is not contained in the phrase itself, but can probably be inferred by its context, and the slang bro brings a connotation of particular aspects of youthful, masculine behavior. But Bernie bro is something quite different: a young, male supporter of candidate Bernie Sanders who exudes sexism and toxic masculinity in his internet postings. The meaning of the phrase cannot be deduced from the meaning of its constituent words. Not only does Bernie refer to a specific person, the junior senator from Vermont, but bro does not denote a close, personal relationship. The phrase can only be understood as a single vocabulary item. We could write it as Bernie-bro or even Berniebro, making it a word in the strict sense, and it would not change in meaning. Bernie bro would have been an apt candidate for the 2016 Word of the Year (it was not considered that year).

While I agree that tender-age shelter is an excellent choice (tender-age was one of the words I selected on my own list), I’m not so sure about some of the other choices. Voldemorting is a bit too cutesy to be a good “most useful” term. I would have argued strongly for preferred pronoun, which only got three votes, particularly given that it was the only term considered that related to transgender issues, a subject that permeated American political discourse this past year and one that will undoubtedly be with us for a long time to come. I’m also not sure how single-use is representative of 2018 or even a viable candidate for “most likely to succeed” given that it was coined a decade or more ago—it has already succeeded. Although the competition in this category was pretty feeble. And while racially charged is a decent choice for “most euphemistic,” deleted family unit, which was chosen as “WTF word of the year,” would have been a better choice in the euphemism category. I do, however, fully support the selection of white-caller crime—the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see black people going about their daily lives—as the choice for “most creative.” Of course, this is just my opinion.

There are other ways, even a bit more academically rigorous, of choosing a word of the year. Merriam-Webster uses one such other method in their choice, which was justice this year. The lexicographers there choose their words by which ones are most looked up online by users, ignoring, of course, those words that are perennially searched for. Justice was looked up 74% more often in 2018 than in 2017. I’m not suggesting that the ADS should find a more objective method, far from it, but I want to point out that there are different methodologies at play in the various selection processes.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2019, by David Wilton