Word of the Year (WOTY) season is upon us, and like the first jingle of sleigh bells in Asda, the first Christmas TV adverts or the first complaint from an angry racist about too much diversity in said TV ad, it seems to get earlier every year.
Whatever cynicism we might have about it as a marketing exercise, it’s a useful time to take stock of the words that have gained prominence over the year. After all, the words we use are a pretty good barometer of the changing world around us.
Whether it’s tracking the new words for this year and seeing how they chime with our own experiences (or not, in many cases – “nepo baby” and “teal”, I’m looking at you) or following the methodologies used to track the new words, there’s plenty to reflect on.
And comparing this year’s words with previous WOTY shortlists and winners can be an eye-opener too. Some older WOTY winners are right on the money – literally. Collins Dictionary had “bitcoin” on their shortlist way back in 2013 and “crypto” in 2021. But does anyone remember Oxford’s “youthquake” from 2017, or Collins’ “Corbynmania” the same year, for that matter? To be fair to Collins, they usually have their finger on the pulse, as this year’s choice is “permacrisis” and that feels about right.
It’s also interesting to see the variation around the Anglosphere. While the world is definitely getting more joined up through online technologies – although arguably more divided as that happens – there are still some “huh?” moments when I look at the US or Australian lists.
For example, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary’s shortlist for 2022 has entries such as “bossware” (software installed on your computer to monitor your work), “orthosomnia” (a preoccupation with getting the required amount of sleep that a sleep-tracking app tells you to get, apparently. Yawn) and “clapter” (a blend of clap and laughter to signal approval, more than hilarity, at a right-on joke) which leave me feeling a bit blank.
“Spicy cough” (a term for Covid) and “bachelor’s handbag” (a takeaway roast chicken) seem to epitomise that much-heralded Aussie dark, downsizing humour that comes through in classics like “budgie smugglers” and “as useful as a dead dingo’s donger”.
Having said that, others on the Macquarie list are fairly familiar because of their online prevalence – “brigading”, “prebunking” and “quiet quitting” – while “goblin mode” was even crowned Oxford’s Word of the Year (open to a public vote for the first time) which perhaps shows that online language knows no borders.
The Cambridge Dictionary WOTY was another odd one – homer – which doesn’t feel very zeitgeisty from where I’m standing. But their explanation sheds a bit more light on the choice, making the point that “homer” was chosen because it had a huge spike in look-ups after it appeared in the popular word game Wordle among confused non-US speakers of English. A largely US-based word from a US-based sport, channelled through an online word game, feels less mainstream the more meta it gets. And I don’t mean that kind of meta, either.
It raises some interesting questions about what makes a WOTY and the different approaches favoured by the various dictionaries and the lexicographers working for them. Increasingly, the dictionaries themselves have started to show their own working a bit more and that’s got to be good for the language education of the general public.
Macquarie Dictionary are particularly good at heading off the “but that’s not a word” brigade with their explanation of lexical units and word formation processes. In short, “It’s a word because we use it as a word, you drongo.”
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Cambridge Dictionary – in their thorough discussion of the process behind choosing “homer” – tell us about how they measure searches for words, while several others use interviews and commentary from proper linguists – Lynne Murphy, Kelly Wright and Ben Zimmer among them – to explain what’s going on.
On one level, WOTY is a bit of a sales pitch and bun fight for column inches for the publishers and that’s fair enough: books are good and we should buy them if we can – just not from Amazon. The world-changing events of 2020 seemed to lead to something of a united front for many of the dictionaries, with the global pandemic dominating most WOTY lists and the sheer number of other events – such as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tense US presidential election and its aftermath – leaving Oxford Dictionaries (literally) at a loss for words, unable to decide on a word for an unprecedented year.
There have certainly been a few cases of the dictionaries trying too hard to “make fetch happen”, jumping on a word that they think might take off but that often fails to limp off the runway, and you have to wonder if WOTY is also a bit of a competition – not just among the words of the year – but among the dictionaries themselves.
But I’m all in favour of more lexicography making it into the public eye, especially if the words that feature are as inventive and imaginative as the ones we see this year.
Dan Clayton is an A-level English Language teacher and education consultant at the English and Media Centre