Writers Talk About Writing
Dennis Baron's Word of the Year for 2013: "Marriage"
It's that time of year when everyone is making their case for the Word of the Year. For Dennis Baron, English professor at the University of Illinois and author of the blog The Web of Language, the word of 2013 is none other than marriage.
The Web of Language Word of the Year for 2013 is marriage. It's a word that was redefined this year not by dictionaries, but by an even higher authority, the United States Supreme Court.
Marriage was a highly-visible and controversial term for much of 2013, with the defenders of marriage arguing either against same-sex marriage, or—and they are defenders of marriage, too—in favor of marriage equality. The Court came down, five to four, on the side of marriage equality, rewriting the definition of marriage in federal law. In addition to ratifying same-sex marriage in states where it is legal, the federal redefinition of marriage impacted a broad range of areas from estate planning, Social Security, and the IRS, to parent-teacher conferences, hospital visits, and basic human dignity. Despite the dramatic impact of this redefinition on thousands of federal statutes and regulations, as well as on everyday life, marriage had a lot of competition for the top WOTY slot.
The American Dialect Society won't announce its Word of the Year choice until early January, but other organizations have already named their winners. The Australian National Dictionary chose bitcoin, the increasingly-popular online currency, as its WOTY, a nod to the increasing digitization of our lives. Bitcoins aren't really coins, but strings of computer code (bits) whose value has jumped from a few cents, when they were first introduced, to hundreds of dollars, today. If you have enough bitcoins, you could be a bitcoinaire, but that might not make you a millionaire, as the virtual cryptocurrency is extremely volatile. When I checked on Dec. 17, a bitcoin was worth as much as $900. The next day, in response to warnings by the Chinese central bank, bitcoin value plunged 50%. Economists don't really understand how dollars or euros work, so how is anyone supposed to deal with a new currency that you can't even hold in your hands? If you're tempted to invest in bitcoinage, remember, past performance does not guarantee future results.
Oxford Dictionaries made headlines when it picked selfie as its Word of the Year. If you've got a mobile phone with a camera, chances are you've taken a selfie, a picture of yourself made by stretching out your arm so the photo shows, not just your face, distorted and tilted at an odd angle, but also your surroundings or companions. It turns out that artists like Dürer and Rembrandt were making selfies centuries before there were cameras, it just took them longer. Shortly after Oxford's choice was announced, Pres. Barak Obama made even-bigger headlines when he appeared together with British Prime Minister David Cameron in a selfie taken by Danish PM Helle Thorning Schmidt, at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. Even though he wasn't taking the shot, and the atmosphere at the Memorial was celebratory, not somber, Obama was the only member of the troika criticized for the selfie by the press.
Bitcoins and selfies are fairly new, but Collins Dictionaries chose an old word, geek, as its Word of the Year, because the definition of geek has recently changed from negative to positive. According to the OED, in the nineteenth century a geek was a fool; more recently, the word referred to “an overly diligent, unsociable student” or “any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit.” Newer still, geeks meant those “preoccupied with computing,” though as the OED's citations make clear, there have been both negative and positive uses of computer geek since that meaning appeared in the 1990s. Now geek has generalized even further, and Collins defines the primary sense of geek as positive, with no mention of antisocial behavior: “a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject.” I'm not convinced that positive geek has outpaced the negative term, but even if it has, our suspicion of expertise suggests that we will always need negative words like geek and nerd for those who know too much but have no people skills.
And Dictionary.com chose privacy as its Word of the Year, because 2013 saw still more revelations about how governments have invaded the privacy of their citizens. Leaks about the extent of surveillance, particularly the revelations of Edward Snowden, led to outrage and public debates. Even so, in Britain, long accustomed to near-universal CCTV monitoring, the spies at GCHQ blithely spied on, and, despite complaints about friends spying on friends, France passed a law giving the government even more authority to monitor the internet liberté, egalité, and fraternité of les gens français. In the U.S., which has a constitutionally-protected right to privacy (even though privacy is not mentioned in the Constitution), internet giants like Google and Microsoft protested that they were shocked, shocked that government surveillance had penetrated their corporate servers, because that might interfere with the placement of context-sensitive advertising (customers who liked these revelations also liked. . . .). In addition, a recent Presidential Advisory Committee report suggested that it might actually be a good idea to rein in some of the NSA's domestic spying, and recommended that the NSA accompany its surveillance with context-sensitive ads so Americans wouldn't get so upset about invasions of their privacy.
Besides these WOTY winners, there are plenty of worthy runners-up:
drone, an unmanned aircraft used for delivering bombs and, soon, packages from Amazon, Zappos, and other online retailers.
stand your ground, a law allowing ordinary citizens to shoot anyone they feel like, so long as they don't move backwards while doing so (it remains illegal, and anticapitalist, to shoot down drones delivering packages).
hoodie, an item of clothing popular with students, young people, and anyone else likely to be shot by a proponent of a stand-your-ground law or targeted by a drone.
sequester: an obsolete noun revived in 2013 and applied to the federal budget; no one knows what sequester really means, or how it impacts that budget (see bitcoin). The Sequester automatically reduces funding to National Parks while increasing money for drones.
twerk: another word for the target of a drone.
Google Glass: the newest wearable computer for hipster geeks can take pictures, give directions, and see through clothing. It has no plural: there are no Google Glasses. With a $1500 price tag (major credit cards accepted, but no bitcoins), and only 12 gb of available flash memory, Google Glass is not ready either for prime time or WOTY status, but it does raise the provocative question, if you have 6 gb of data on that flash drive, is your Glass half empty or half full?
white Santa: (origin: FoxNews) can only be considered a candidate for Word of the Year if he or she can produce a long-form birth certificate.
affluenza: a legal defense asserting that growing up rich prevents the affluent from forming mens rea, or criminal intent, so they are not culpable for any crimes they commit. It's not clear whether bitcoinaires may suffer from affluenza; also, replaces the twinkie defense, rejected by the courts since the Hostess bankruptcy.
Marriage: I chose marriage as Word of the Year because in a single day in June the Supreme Court redefined marriage to include same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples, and it did so without ever once saying, “the dictionary says.”
The Supreme Court often relies on dictionaries to define key legal terms, and the justices could have easily found dictionaries defining marriage in both traditional and progressive ways to match their own sense of what the word should mean (that kind of cherry-picking is often how lawyers and judges use dictionaries). But in the Windsor decision, which invalidated the sections of the Defense of Marriage Act that specified marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and in the three dissents to the decision, the justices made no mention of Webster's or Johnson's Dictionary, the OED, the American Heritage, or even Black's Law Dictionary. Instead, they considered both traditional cultural and religious views of marriage as heterosexual, along with changing contemporary notions of who may marry, emphasizing as well the right both of the states and of the federal government to define marriage in the law.
An example from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass illustrates how the Court defined this year's WOTY winner. In the book, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice,
When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.
The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.
But Humpty Dumpty corrects her,
The question is, which is to be master, that's all.
Not everyone was happy with the Supreme Court's marriage definition: for some the justices went too far, for others, not far enough. But the Court's action has had some unanticipated ramifications. Six months after the Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage, a federal district court struck down the parts of Utah's anti-polygamy law that appeared to conflict with Windsor, opening up the possibility, or the fear, that marriage will be redefined even further to include multiple partners.
But aside from what they accomplished legally, and what they muddied, the Supreme Court's decisions focused our attention on one very important aspect of meaning-making: in Constitutional law, a word means not what you or I or a dictionary or even a lower court says it means. Instead, that word means exactly what the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court says it means, neither more nor less. In the law, it's not about what dictionaries you cite, but who gets to do the defining. Defining marriage, the 2013 Word of the Year, tells us who is to be master.