Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
"Fake News" Is the Real Word of the Year
In a landslide vote, the American Dialect Society on Friday selected fake news as its word of the year for 2017 – the term, in its members' view, that best represents "the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year."
It was the second chance at the brass ring for fake news, which had originally been nominated at the January 2017 ADS meeting. In the twelve months since then, fake news has gained currency as well as a new sense: Not only can it signify "disinformation or falsehoods spread as real news" – by, say, Macedonian teenagers looking to make a quick buck during the 2016 U.S. election by disseminating made-up stories that smeared Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – but it has also come to mean "actual news that is claimed to be untrue" if it's perceived as unflattering – by, say, President Donald Trump.
"Trump's version of fake news became a catchphrase among the president's supporters, seeking to expose biases in mainstream media," said Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS's New Words Committee and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal (and former executive editor of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com). But, he noted, it has also spread to other speakers. For example, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, recently denied having said there were "no-go zones" in the Netherlands, telling an interviewer the quote was "fake news." After being shown clips in which he himself talked about no-go zones, he denied having said anything about "fake news."
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that fake news has penetrated the American lexicon was a recent word-of-the-year vote by the sixth-grade class at Academy I Middle School in Jersey City, New Jersey. The class picked fake news, and students noted that they were hearing it in the hallways as a Trump-style insult.
(At this point, some of you are protesting: "But fake news is two words!" Here's what the American Dialect Society has to say about that: "For the sake of the vote, 'word' is broadly defined to include multiword phrases, compounds, and idiomatic expressions that behave like single lexical items." Last year's WOTY was dumpster fire; previous years' picks have included #blacklivesmatter and singular, gender-neutral they.)
In a separate vote, fake news was also voted "Most Likely to Succeed." Other category winners included die by suicide (Most Useful, a variant of "commit suicide" that does not imply criminal intent), take a knee (Political Word of the Year, "to kneel in protest"), and alternative facts (Euphemism of the Year, "contrary information that matches one's preferred narrative" – a sort of complement to fake news). For more on alternative facts, see Mark Peters's January 2018 column.
Although both senses of fake news are real news, the two elements of the phrase are old news. The word news – an account of interesting recent events – has been documented in English since the early 1400s. (The word is not an acronym for north-east-west-south, as a popular myth would have it.) Fake is more recent, and murkier in origin. It was first reported in late-18th-century London as an adjective meaning "spurious" or "counterfeit"; the verb appeared around 1812 and the noun a few decades later.
Lexicographers have several theories about where fake came from: possibly from feak "a curl of hair," or the Scottish dialect word feak "to twitch or sputter," both of which may be related to German fegen, "to sweep" or "to clean." Or it may come from Polari, the specialized British slang spoken by circus performers, actors, criminals, and gay men – Polari is a corruption of Italian parlare, to speak. If that theory is correct, its ultimate origin may be Italian facciare, to make or do. In its earliest usage, to fake a person could mean to shoot, wound, cut, or kill: to "do him in."
In jazz, a fake book (dating from the late 1940s) is a lead sheet that helps a performer quickly learn new songs; fake tan was first documented in 1950 in, of all places, the Waterloo (Iowa) Courier.
The ADS isn't the only institution to have awarded WOTY honors to fake news. In early December, Collins Dictionary (UK) made the identical pick, citing a 365 percent uptick in usage since 2016. Other WOTYs for 2017 have included complicit (Dictionary.com), feminism (Merriam-Webster), and youthquake (Oxford Dictionaries).
But the ADS vote, which originated in 1990, is the most venerable of all the WOTY contests. As word maven James Callan observed in a survey of past ADS winners, "The ADS is to words of the year what both the Oscars and the National Film Critics Circle Awards are to movies — they invented the concept, and also set the bar for quality." (That said, the very first ADS Word of the Year was bushlips. Have you used it lately, or ever?) Participants in the voting action include linguists, lexicographers, grammarians, historians, university students, writers, editors, and members of the public who show up to a freewheeling and often impassioned (but generally good-natured) celebration of words.
Whether fake news will outlive its 365 days of fame is anyone's guess. But at least one person is determined to capitalize on it – and to capitalize it – in an announcement about another awards presentation. Stay tuned Wednesday tonight!