Word of the Year: How dictionary judges decide the defining terms for the nation – Published in “i”

Will vax and NFT be as durable as selfies and bingewatching? Etan Smallman looks at the impact of words of the year

Picture: Caleb Roenigk


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Are you “bovvered” about the “youthquake”? Too busy taking a “selfie” while you “vape”? Or despairing at the “omnishambles” of a “toxic”, “post-truth” world gripped by “climate emergency”? Either way, you are using terms that have defined the past decade-and-ahalf – at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Its experts convene annually to argue over what they judge “to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”.

For 2021, the result was so clear that they did not even vote. Having “injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language”, “vax” emerged as its Word of the Year.

This week Collins English Dictionary announced its own winner: “NFT” (an abbreviation of non-fungible token, a digital certificate of ownership of a unique asset), which it hailed as a “unique technicolour collision of art, technology and commerce” that has “broken through the Covid noise”.

Meanwhile, Cambridge Dictionary opted for an injection of optimism, with “perseverance” – “a word which captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up”.

For Britain’s lexicographers (noun, a writer or compiler of a dictionary), Christmas has come early. “It’s a really fun time of year,” says Helen Newstead, who has helped decide Collins’ word of the year since 2016. “We come out of our cupboards and we’re allowed to talk about language!”

The American Dialect Society has been crowning a word – following a vote at its annual conference – since 1990. Oxford first introduced its choice in 2004, while Collins followed in 2013. For each, the process begins with the organisation’s corpus, a database of language, which analyses about 15 billion words from newspapers, websites and other sources and allows the dictionary boffins to detect large spikes in usage over the year.

A shortlist is compiled before a panel of staff (six at Collins, 10 at Oxford) fight it out for their favourites across a boardroom table (or Zoom screen).

Although a word’s inclusion in these lists has never been a guarantee of its entry into the dictionary itself, the announcements gradually caught the public imagination, generating increasing numbers of column inches, before social media took hold and allowed everyone to join in the debate. The choices can provoke controversy. Some were outraged by Oxford’s 2015 selection of the “Face with Tears of Joy” (top left, inset) – the mostused emoji around the world that year – because it wasn’t a word.

Collins’ choice of “Brexit” 12 months later provoked angry emails, says Newstead: “Some people see it almost as a celebration of the word.” Others wrote to Collins to object to the triumph of two-word terms (“fake news” in 2017, “single-use” in 2018).

But the language data consultant is far from surprised. “It’s how we communicate, how we feel, our opinions and our emotions. It is absolutely vital and that’s why we want to talk about it.”

Many choices turn out to be flashes in the lexical pan. Collins’ shortlists have included transient political terms such as “Corbynomics” and passing fads such as the fidget spinner playground toy and the “floss” dance craze.

“Phablet” – connoting a mobile device between the size of a smartphone and a tablet computer – “was really big in 2013”, notes Newstead, “and no one talks about them any more because every phone is a phablet now.”

A few words of the year are now so entrenched in the vernacular, it is difficult to remember their introduction – “selfie” was Oxford’s winner in 2013. However, Fiona McPherson, a senior editor who has been working on Oxford’s list since 2009, points out: “I remember people saying it’s a stupid word, it will never catch on.”

Examine the winning words over the years and patterns begin to emerge. Between 2010 and 2012, Oxford had three consecutive political expressions: “big society” (David Cameron’s big idea), “squeezed middle” (the strappedfor-cash middle earners embraced by then-Labour leader Ed Miliband) and “omnishambles” (first used in BBC sitcom The Thick of It). The popularity of all has plummeted in the years since – a bad sign, perhaps, for those with high hopes of Boris Johnson’s current slogan of choice, “levelling up”.

Overall, the selections have become increasingly doom-laden. “I look fondly back at the innocent days of when all we had to worry about was ‘photobombing’ [Collins, 2014] or ‘bingewatching’ [Collins, 2015],” says Newstead.

Certainly, the beginning of this century was a much more “simples” time – when a catchphrase from a pricecomparison website could be chosen by Oxford to sum up 2009.

While “omnishambles” was so peculiarly British that Oxford had to provide a US-specific word of the year in 2012 (“GIF”), catastrophes from Covid to climate change have recently so dominated the global landscape that lists by dictionaries across the world have started to converge.

Yet there is still a little room for geographical variation. Last week, the Australian National Dictionary Centre revealed its word of the year: “strollout”, a term used to describe the snail-paced vaccine roll-out Down Under.

Forecasting what might make next year’s shortlists is a fool’s game (who would have anticipated NFT emerging in 2021?). “You cannot predict where language is going to go,” says McPherson. “It’s really difficult,” agrees Newstead. “But I would quite like postpandemic to be the word for next year.”

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