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Banning Words for the New Year

In the spirit of New Year's resolutions like quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, each January brings new calls to ban words, the linguistic equivalent of losing weight. But while New Year's resolutions are self-imposed — I decide that an hour on the elliptical watching Sherlock would be better than an hour on the couch with Sherlock and a bowl of chips — word bans tend to be imposed by someone else.

Usually it's an individual or a group that wants to ban a word. One such group, at Lake Superior State University, posts an annual banished words list. Instead of learn a new word every day, the New Year's resolution of this crowd is ban a new word every day. This year's banned words are selfie, twerk, and hashtag.

It turns out that quite a few people actually like these banned words: Oxford Dictionaries honored selfie as its 2013 Word of the Year, with twerk dancing close behind, and both the Web of Language and the American Dialect Society named #hashtag as Word of the Year for 2012 (marriage and invasion of privacy are the Web of Language's 2013 word and phrase of the year).

Banning words won't stop people from using them: nominations on the Banished Word List are so peppered with selfie and hashtag it seems that even the nominators themselves are reluctant to give up using the words they claim to hate.

Other word bans are equally likely to fail. In 2013, a London charter school banned ain't, like, cuz, innit, yeah, and other common words, insisting that students who say them won't get good jobs. The move brought the school some media attention, but it had no discernible impact on students' language, yeah, or that of teachers or other British adults.

The French Academy, tasked by law with keeping la langue française French, not English, wants to ban ASAP, score, and digital, because they're English words. The Academy wants citoyens to say dès que possible instead of ASAP, though the French equivalent doesn't have the same status that ASAP has in English, where it is an abbreviated formula (like the French RSVP) pronounced either letter by letter or as if it were a two-syllable word, a-sap.

The Academy doesn't want French footballeurs to score when they make a goal, preferring the verb marquer instead. And numérique must replace digital, as in une montre à affichage numérique, 'digital watch,' though analog watches also use numbers, or un appareil photo numérique, 'digital camera,' though 'numerical camera' doesn't quite capture what a digital camera does.

As for binge drinking, which the French define as 'consuming more than one bottle of wine per person per meal,' the Academy wants beuverie express, a made-up term which actually means 'fast drinking.' And the new official French term for hashtag is mot-dièse, which means 'word-sharp,' 'pointed word,' or 'word like an elbow to the ribs, yeah?' — none of them an apparent equivalent of the English term. The French Academy hasn't picked an equivalent for selfie, but the Office québécois de la langue française has chosen autoportrait.

The French Academy equivalents of English terms
The French Academy requires native equivalents instead of English borrowings.

The success in French of English words like week-end and O.K. suggests that nobody really listens to the French Academy. Although it never became law, it's doubtful that anyone would have obeyed a New York City Council resolution proposed a few years ago to ban bitch and ho, or similar attempts to ban the n-word. And draft legislation in Israel's Knesset to ban the word Nazi "for any purpose other than education or documentation" has angered free-speech advocates who argue that the law would ban everything from insults aimed at bullies to novels about the holocaust to Seinfeld's soup Nazi, and besides, sometimes Nazi is the right word. Similar legislation, introduced in 2011, did not make it out of committee.

People may be passionate about what they hate about language, but legal word bans just don't work. In 1918, in the patriotic fever surrounding World War I, Iowa governor William Harding banned all foreign languages in public: in schools, on the sidewalk, on trains, and on the phone. He also banned foreign languages in church. Explaining this last provision, Harding told reporters, "There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue."

Word bans require enforcement: a rule or law needs a penalty for violations and a way to catch offenders. Just venting on a web page won't do. But even with enforcement, the bans don't work. In 1918, several farm wives were fined for speaking German on party-line telephones in Iowa. Instead of enforcing patriotism, that made the state into a national laughing stock. A few years later, a private school teacher in Nebraska was fined $25 for giving instruction in German, also against the law. That led the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down bans on foreign-language instruction (Meyer v. Nebraska 262 U.S. 390, 1923).

Words arise because they're useful, and they're abandoned when they're not needed any more, not because someone puts them on a no-fly list. Speakers of a language refuse to be reined in by language laws, teachers, or academies. Shaming doesn't work, or detentions, or fines for each infraction. Plus there's the Garden of Eden syndrome to consider. Everyone's entitled not to like a word or phrase, but banning words because they're English or German, or insulting, or new, or illogical, or slang, or merely silly, only makes people want to use them even more. Ban them loud enough and they could become words of the year.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.