Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Year in Words, 2013 Edition

As the year comes to a close, it's time once again to survey the new words and phrases that made their presence felt in the popular consciousness. For the Wall Street Journal, I surveyed the "words that popped in 2013," from cronut to Sharknado, but there were too many good choices to include in one article. Here I present my more comprehensive list of notable words of the year.

I've compiled my list of Word of the Year candidates in advance of the American Dialect Society's WOTY selection. As chair of the society's New Words Committee, I'll be on hand when the ADS gathers for its annual conference in Minneapolis later this week. Stay tuned here for the slate of nominees on Thursday evening and the final results on Friday evening.

As in past years, the general public is invited to submit nominations for the word or phrase that best characterizes the past year. The ADS is looking for new or newly popular terms that were prominently used in 2013 and reflect popular American discourse. Recent winners include hashtag (2012), occupy (2011), app (2010), tweet (2009), and bailout (2008). Nominations can be sent to woty@americandialect.org.

As I've done in past years, my own list of nominees is broken down into topical categories. (These are not the categories used in the ADS voting, which includes such honors as Most Likely to Succeed, Most Useful, Most Outrageous, and Most Euphemistic.) This year I've selected five nominees in five different categories: pop culture/lifestyle, tech/online, domestic news, international news, and economics/business.

As for my overall favorite this year, I think I'm most fond of lean in, which I looked at for a May Word Routes column after it was popularized as the title of a book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urging women to be more assertive in pursuing their professional goals. Devoted readers may remember that last year I was pulling for double down (which also became book title, for Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's narrative of the 2012 presidential race). Perhaps I'm just a fan of brash, go-for-broke phrasal verbs! (And yes, phrases are acceptable Word of the Year candidates, as long as they are dictionary-worthy vocabulary items.)

Pop culture/lifestyle

cronut: This croissant-doughnut hybrid showed how a clever name can help drum up interest in a new product. Dossant and other pale imitators just couldn't compete with the original gastro-lexical concoction from Dominique Ansel's Manhattan bakery.

Sharknado: Like cronut, this instant camp classic from the Syfy Channel was an example of how a good blend can capture the public imagination. In the wake of the social-media exuberance over Sharknado, the -nado of tornado became such a popular blend component that it achieved the status of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a "libfix," a word-part that productively combines with other words in a semantically transparent fashion. (To quote the Sharknado tagline: enough said!)

-splain: If -nado had a rival for Libfix of the Year, it would have to be -splain, derived from explain, which first showed up in the blend mansplain(ing), winner in the Most Creative category in the 2012 WOTY voting. As Mark Peters -splained in an October column, the condescending male explanations of mansplaining gave way this year to a everything from shoesplaining to grammarsplaining.

Thanksgivukkah: Clearly I'm a sucker for a good blend, and this year there were so many to choose from. Even though the Thanksgiving/Hanukkah confluence won't occur again for tens of thousands of years, this once-in-a-lifetime event was worth commemorating with another well-chosen portmanteau word.

twerk: For a while it looked like this term for a rump-shaking dance might be the early favorite as a Word of the Year contender, after it became unavoidable following Miley Cyrus's twerkfest at MTV's Video Music Awards back in August. Now that twerkageddon is behind us, both the word and the dance it labels have faded a bit from memory.

Tech/online

catfishing: This term for pranking someone with a fictitious online identity (derived from the documentary "Catfish") hit it big in January when the football player Manti Te'o, then a star at Notre Dame, was revealed to be a victim of a bizarre catfishing hoax. Te'o, now with the San Diego Chargers, probably hopes we could all forget about this word.

doge: If you want to keep up with the latest in intentionally ungrammatical wordplay, forget about those cute "lolcats" of the past. Now the Internet is consumed with the doge meme, which graphically presents the imagined dialogue of fluffy, enthusiastic Shiba Inu dogs. For a linguistic look at the doge meme, see Lauren Gawne's post on the Superlinguo blog, and for instructions on pronouncing doge (a playful misspelling of dog) see this Slate article.

listicle: Another blend, this combines list with (art)icle to describe the now-ubiquitous style of online content presented in list form, as seen on Buzzfeed, Mental Floss, and elsewhere. Gawker first started running listicles a decade ago, but this year the format seemed to dominate online media. And -icle could be a libfix in the making, as it shows up in other forms such as charticle.

selfie: Already recognized as Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries, this word for a social-media-friendly self-portrait could be a strong contender for ADS honors as well. It is derived from Australian slang but has become so prevalent worldwide that we now see endless variations on the theme, from shelfies (selfies featuring bookshelves) to snowfies (selfies in the snow).

subtweet: The "subliminal tweet," subtweet for short, came on the scene this year to describe a particularly passive-aggressive form of Twitter interaction in which someone is discussed (almost always negatively) without explicitly using his or her Twitter handle. Subtweeting can make Twitter feel like high school all over again.

Domestic news

affluenza: This term was used in the legal defense of Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old from a well-off Texas family, who was sentenced to ten years probation for killing four people in a drunk-driving accident. Affluenza, referring to feelings of isolation and lack of motivation among those from a wealthy background, isn't a new word — the Oxford English Dictionary takes it all the way back to 1973, and a 1997 PBS special and book brought it to prominence. But when Couch's lawyers successfully played the affluenza card in pleading for leniency, outrage over the term heated up.

Boston Strong: This motto emerged after the Boston Marathon bombing as a kind of rallying cry for the city. In May, I took a look at how Boston Strong emerged from other strong slogans, like LiveStrong and Army Strong.

knockout game: A rash of violent attacks brought this term into prominence, describing a "game" in which young assailants randomly target people, trying to punch them out with one blow. But panicky reports of an epidemic of "knockouts" turned out to be overblown.

nuclear option: This hyperbolic term for a threatened change in Senate rules goes back a decade to when the Republicans were in the majority and were stymied by Democrats' use of the filibuster to block presidential nominations. The nuclear option, as then Majority Leader Trent Lott dubbed it, would allow the majority to approve nominations with a simple majority rather than with 60 votes. While the nuclear option never came to pass under Lott, Harry Reid ended up pulling the trigger for Democrats this November.

Obamacare: While Obamacare has long been a common term in the debate over health care legislation, this year, as my colleague Allan Metcalf argues, could be considered the year of Obamacare, for better or for worse. It started off as an anti-Obama pejorative before the President's supporters tried to reclaim it, but the glitchy rollout of HealthCare.gov has tarnished the term yet again.

International news

airpocalypse: Crippling pollution in Beijing and other parts of China gave rise to this term, first used in January, according to Wordspy. This is a grave environmental concern, as opposed to other less serious uses of the -pocalypse libfix (as in the cicadapocalypse that some predicted would occur in the Northeast with this year's periodical cicada swarm, aka swarmageddon).

çapulling: Also spelled chapulling, this term was used by protesters in Turkey who ironically embraced the label that their prime minister gave them, çapulcu or "looters." Mark Liberman's June Language Log post gives more cultural context.

drone: As a term for unmanned aircraft, drone dates back to U.S. Navy usage in the '30s, but this year drone was often used as a transitive verb meaning "to target in a drone strike." As I noted in an August Word Routes column, "the part-of-speech switch indicates that drone has entered a new stage in its long life cycle."

fatberg: A 15-ton deposit of grease, rotting food, and wet wipes was found to be clogging London's sewer system in August. Fatberg is the term that Thames Water authorities themselves used to describe the nauseating phenomenon.

papabile: In March, when a new Pope was chosen, the Italian word papabile (literally "pope-able") described the candidates under consideration. Papabile Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elevated to be Pope Francis.

Economics/business

bitcoin: This was a big year for the virtual currency known as bitcoin (also called a "crypto-currency" because it relies on advanced cryptographic methods for the "mining" of virtual coins.) First introduced in 2008, speculation in bitcoin (or bitcoins, if you prefer thinking of it as a count noun rather than a mass noun) has run rampant. But this might all be another speculative bubble: word-watcher Barry Popik notes that some are referring to bitcoin as tulipcoin, likening it to the tulip mania of the 17th century.

demised: This latest euphemism for "fired" was used by the bank HSBC when it laid off nearly 1,000 employees. Contributors Nancy Friedman and Mark Peters have already savored this term, perhaps a contender in the Most Euphemistic category of the WOTY voting.

sequester: Capitol Hill budget wrangling brought this term to the fore in the early months of 2013. In a February column, I traced sequestration back to 1985 budget talks, but this year's triggering of mandated cuts made the term ubiquitous, with sequester taking off as a shorthand noun.

shutdown: The sequester early in the year set the stage for the federal government shutdown in October. TIME's Katy Steinmetz says that shutdown has been used for such government closures since the 1970s, but this year it was momentous enough to generate both euphemisms (slimdown) and dysphemisms (shutstorm).

taper: In September, some analysts expected that the Federal Reserve would commence with tapering, or gradually slowing down their bond-buying policy. Much like sequester, this expected change in Fed policy became known simply as "the taper." But Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, deciding it was more important to keep long-term interest rates low, refrained from turning September into "Septaper," or October into "Octaper." Instead, Bernanke pulled off a "Dectaper" surprise, though it didn't affect the markets as much as some had predicted.

[Update: You can hear me talk about some of the WOTY contenders on NPR's "Morning Edition."]


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 31st 2013, 12:46 PM
Comment by: John T.
Splain: I vividly remember Ricky Ricardo demanding that his wife Lucy had better "splain" just exactly what she was up to in the 50s.

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