Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Looking Back on the Vortex of Words in 2014

It's time once again for the annual look back at the noteworthy words of the past year. Did you indulge in any manspreading or Columbusing this year? Were you concerned about dark money or plastigomerate? Here's a veritable vortex of words that rose to prominence in 2014.

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 Portland, Oregon in the first week of January. Last year's winner was an unusual one: because when used before a noun, adjective, or interjection. (Because innovative!) As ADS executive secretary Allan Metcalf recently noted, there's no clear favorite this time around, so we could have another surprise winner.

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 2014 and reflect popular American discourse. Nominations can be sent to woty@americandialect.org, or you can post them on Twitter using the #woty14 hashtag (and follow @americandialect for more).

As for my personal top choice, I'm currently leaning toward vortex, which had a big year, primarily with polar vortex entering the weather lexicon. (As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the phrase actually goes back to Dickensian times.) Polar vortex is so widely understood now that it can be shortened to vortex, as in the vortex-proof gear advertised by L.L. Bean. And vortex has been spinning in all sorts of other directions this year: allergy sufferers fear a pollen vortex; Syria has been described as a "vortex of violence and despair"; and Jeb Bush worries about "getting sucked into the vortex" of the 2016 presidential race.

Here are 25 additional words that were noteworthy in 2014, broken down into five categories. (The ADS has its own categories for voting, such as Most Likely to Succeed, Most Useful, and Most Outrageous.)

Domestic news

budtender: The legalization of the marijuana trade in Colorado and Washington has popularized this term for someone who works at a cannabis dispensary.

Cromnibus: Also spelled CRomnibus, it's a mashup of CR (continuing resolution) and omnibus, the bipartisan spending bill passed by Congress to avert a government shutdown. Nancy Pelosi likened it to the cronut, the croissant-doughnut hybrid that made news in 2013.

dark money: While the term dates back to the 2010 mid-term elections, this kind of anonymous campaign spending truly dominated the 2014 mid-terms. The New York Times editorial board argued that dark money helped move the Senate into Republican hands.

die-in: This form of protest theater has become a common sight at demonstrations over grand juries failing to indict white police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The first die-in, as I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, was staged in Boston for Earth Day in 1970, and the protest term has also been used by antiwar and AIDS activists. The Brown and Garner cases have inspired new protest slogans, such as "hands up, don't shoot," (sometimes abbreviated to "hands up") and "I can't breathe" (which I wrote about for Wired).

plastiglomerate: In June, researchers reported a new kind of "stone" on the beaches of Hawaii, formed from melted plastic, beach sediment, and organic debris. Plastiglomerate clearly marks the human impact on the geological record.

International news

Ebola: It was near the Ebola River, a tributary of the Congo River, where the Ebola virus was first identified in 1976. The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa and beyond has engendered a panic in the U.S. and other countries, variously described as Ebolaphobia, Ebolamania, and Ebolanoia.

ISIS: The acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has been the preferred term for the jihadist group, though the Obama Administration has favored ISIL (using "Levant" instead of "Syria" in the acronym). The group dislikes the Arabic label Daesh, and for that reason it has caught on in the West as well.

Plebgate: This UK political scandal came to an end in 2014, when the Tory politician Andrew Mitchell lost a libel case in which he disputed calling a police officer a pleb, or commoner. I looked into the word pleb for the Wall Street Journal, as it is a peculiarly British class-based epithet.

shirtfront: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised eyebrows when he threatened to shirtfront Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit. He meant that he was going to confront Putin aggressively over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in an area of the Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. This led to much debate over the semantics of the term (used in Australian rules football with more violent connotations), and the Australian National Dictionary Centre named it their Word of the Year.

umbrella revolution: Pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have taken on this term, referring to the umbrellas they have used as defense against tear gas. A coalition of activist groups have rallied under the umbrella term The Umbrella Movement.


dronie: This term emerged for video "selfies" taken with a drone. Drone photography took off this year, also spawning the term dronestagram (drone + Instagram).

God view: The ride-sharing service Uber got unwanted publicity when it was reported that employees had access to "God view," a display showing real-time information on all Uber users. Geoff Nunberg picked this as his Word of the Year on NPR's "Fresh Air," ruminating on technology's new opportunities for creepiness.

infra: Short for infrastructure, infra has become a trendy clipping in tech circles. In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook's motto was changing from "Move fast and break things" to "Move fast with stable infra."

selfie stick: Also known as the monopod, the selfie stick first hit it big in Asia before spreading around the world this year. The selfie stick is an extendable handheld pole that allows the user to take selfies from a short distance.

wearable: After much advance hype, wearables (items of wearable technology) may finally be taking off, with new products like Google Glass and the Apple Watch adorning techie bodies.

Online culture

anonymish: Social networks like Facebook and Twitter explored anonymity features, following the success of apps like Secret and Whisper, which have been dubbed anonymish because they are not quite anonymous (i.e., your identity may only be revealed to your friends).

GAFA: The "Big Four" companies dominating our online life are Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. In France especially, where concerns about cultural imperialism run high, these Internet giants go by the acronym GAFA.

Gamergate: The Gamergate controversy was a tangled mess of accusations and counteraccusations, with a debate over ethics in video-game journalism devolving into misogynistic harrassment of women seeking more diversity in gaming culture. Gamergaters developed their own lingo, such as SJW (for "social justice warrior").

platisher: This blend of platform and publisher emerged as a label for online publishers such as Medium that also serve as platforms for creating content. Medium senior editor Evan Hansen called platisher "the worst new word of all time," so it's hard to see how it will stick.

sharing economy: Online platforms have enabled an emerging economic system that seeks to empower individual users in the sharing of resources. Airbnb (for renting out houses and apartments), and Uber (for sharing rides) are prime examples of the new peer-to-peer approach.

Pop culture/lifestyle

Columbusing: A College Humor video popularized this word for how white people "discover" things that have been known by others for a long time, akin to the "discovery" of America by Christopher Columbus. The reappropriation of African American slang is a good example of Columbusing in action. (This year, reappropriated slang included bae and turnt.)

conscious uncoupling: When Gwyneth Paltrow announced her separation from Chris Martin, she introduced the world to this New Age-y euphemism. I wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how uncoupling, conscious or otherwise, came out of the world of relationship counseling and seeks to put a positive spin on marital dissolution.

manspreading: In New York, some male subway riders have a habit of spreading their legs and taking up more than one seat in the process. The MTA has sought to stigmatize this poor subway etiquette in a new campaign. (If you don't like manspreading, James Harbeck has suggested another term, mansplaying.)

normcore: This fashion trend is more of an anti-fashion trend, characterized by clothing that is just, well, normal. Coined by the trend forecasting group K-Hole (which has also sought to popularize the phrase "acting basic"), normcore takes advantage of the productive –core suffix (from hardcore).

spornosexual: This unpretty term cropped up in the UK press in June, combining a blend of sport and porn with the –sexual ending previously popularized by metrosexual. Hunky (and often shirtless) soccer stars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are seen as prime examples. If you prefer your metrosexual spinoffs to wear plaid and sport facial hair like a lumberjack, then the lumbersexual may be more to your liking.

You can also check out the nominee lists from Grant Barrett and Nancy Friedman. Further nominees will be posted on the ADS website.

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Ben Zimmer 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.