A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Whether You Can Make Words Mean So Many Things
"Chicago—is—oh well, a façade of skyscrapers facing a lake, and behind the façade every type of dubiousness." — E. M. Forster
A time-honored ritual around the world at year's end is to nominate Words of the Year (henceforth, WOTYs). Followers of word news during the last few months probably heard about Oxford Dictionaries' nomination of not a word but an emoji, the "face with tears of joy," as their word of the year, on the strength of its constituting 20% of the emojis used in the UK during the year. Word purists criticized the choice as a crass publicity stunt or decried the death of language. Oxford Dictionaries head Caspar Grathwohl lays out a rationale for the choice in a video here. Readers here will be aware of the American Dialect Society's (ADS) replete treatment of WOTYs in various categories, and the crowning of singular they as the winner—Ben Zimmer wrote all about it in a piece here last month. Linguist Geoff Nunberg named gig as his WOTY in a very thoughtful piece that appeared on NPR's "Fresh Air". Finally, the Independent ran a useful survey article about 2015's WOTYs around the world.
ADS president Allan Metcalf has remarked that the Word of the Year competition was inspired by TIME magazine's Person of the Year, and that's fair enough: we are able to distinguish words as easily as we distinguish people, so why not designate one that is resplendent among its peers? But words can be much more different from each other than people are, and it's a curious oversight of the word-glorifying business that this is not remarked on. People of the Year are normally distinguished by their great influence. Words of the Year bear myriad relationships to the things they represent and because of this, the ways in which they distinguish themselves are extremely divergent.
To put it another way: Angela Merkel, Pope Francis, and Barack Obama (three recent TIME winners) have a lot more in common than they, because, and hashtag (three recent ADS winners). How so? Well, people are people, but the thing referred to by a word (denotatum or designatum) may be easy or impossible to conceptualize, exist in isolation or only as an attribute of something else, it may not be a thing at all or it may not exist at all. Despite that, we designate this very large class of objects, any and all of the thirty constituents of this sentence, as being examples of the same kind of thing: words.
Regarding words and their referents, the easiest class to grasp are those that represent real, tangible objects and that have a straightforward mapping between object and word, such that the one reliably conjures the other. In other words, if you see one of these two images (and you are an English speaker, of course), it's likely that the word button will pop into your mind. Conversely, if you hear, think, or see the word button, your mind's eye will probably produce an image like either of the ones shown.
Our lexicons are filled with such straightforward mappings; without them, we would be unable to order and classify the objects of the senses, especially the objects of sight and touch. Concrete nouns are the most typical of words in this class, but abstract nouns are like this as well: if you hear, read, or say hashtag, you imagine something like #BlackLivesMatter, or if you see a text string preceded by a #, you probably think "hashtag". Hashtag took the prize in 2012 because it was a surging novelty. Geoff Nunberg's word this year, gig, bears a similar relationship to what it represents, but it did not win on the basis of novelty; gig has been around since the early 20th century. Nunberg chose it because of the unusual way in which the semantic territory represented by gig has expanded, in synch with our changing economy.
The straightforward word-to-referent relationships that pertain to many nouns don't work so well with singular they, the 2015 WOTY. Unlike button, gig, or hashtag, they does not map to a fixed image or idea, other than the idea (traditionally) of plurality. They is an indexical word that is nearly meaningless without context, and its referent in one instance may be completely different from its referent in the next, as in these two sentences:
They handed the leader some boxes. It turned out that they were leaflets warning them they could be breaking the law.
The ADS chose singular they because of its "emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she." There is certainly an aspect of novelty in this: the novelty of casting off centuries of usage and consciously giving a word a job that it has uncertain qualifications for. I am not convinced that this one is here to stay. I am reminded of the short dialog in Through the Looking Glass between Alice and Humpty-Dumpty:
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master — that's all."
The ADS 2013 WOTY, because (introducing a noun, adjective, or other part of speech) represents yet another distinctive word achievement. Because does not map to an image (like button does) or to another sentence element (like they does), but it links to an idea: namely, the idea of causality. Because was historically a conjunction that could join two independent clauses, linking them causally: She laughs because she is happy. The phrase because of, since the 14th century, has been a compound preposition: He was late because of traffic. The link between because and the idea of causality is so dependable that speakers have felt increasingly free to expand the syntactic rules that have governed because for centuries, and now it is informally a preposition in its own right: I was late because traffic. So because became a WOTY not because of change in meaning or change in legitimate objects of reference, but rather change in syntactic behavior.
Have no fear that I am advocating a new and nerdy approach to WOTYs, in which the categories for nominees represent the various classes of modified mappings between words and what they can stand for: this would surely make the eyes of the public glaze over very quickly and it would destroy the fun of the current categories, such as Most Useful, Most Fun, Most Outrageous, and so forth. But it's worth keeping in mind that words are a bit like Forster's skyscrapers in the quote I began with: words are a façade facing the reader or listener, and behind the façade, every type of dubiousness.