Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
The Year of "Tender Age"
In the 28-year history of the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year vote – the oldest and, by some measures, most influential of the WOTYs – some winners have proved enduring (World Wide Web, 1995; red/blue/purple states, 2004), some have crystallized a moment in time (chad, 2000; bailout, 2008), and others have faded into deserved obscurity (bushlips, 1990; to pluto, 2006). Top honors have gone to a conjunction (because, 2013), a hashtag (#blacklivesmatter, 2014), and a pronoun (they, 2015). But not until this year, at the society's annual meeting in New York City, has a euphemism been awarded top honors.
The winning term, tender-age shelter, has an innocent sound that masks a sinister reality. (It qualified for Word of the Year as a "vocabulary item," which can include phrases as well as words.) It emerged in June, when the Trump administration set up a new policy of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.–Mexico border. The detention facilities for young children were officially known as "tender-age shelters" or "tender-age facilities": more accurately, warehouses "where they built walls out of chain link fences," according to Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy. In other words, cages.
The use of "tender-age shelters" provoked widespread outrage, not least among language watchdogs. The linguist and author John McWhorter wrote on CNN.com: "The purpose of such language is to mask the cruel detention of these bewildered children in internment compounds, done in an effort to penalize their parents for attempting to enter America, some illegally." He called the term "nefariously Orwellian."
In a press release issued after the ADS vote on January 4, Ben Zimmer, chair of the society's New Words Committee and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal (and former executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus) provided additional context. "The use of highly euphemistic language to paper over the human effects of family separation was an indication of how words in 2018 could be weaponized for political necessity," Zimmer said. "But the bureaucratic phrasing ended up backfiring, as reports of the term served to galvanize opposition to the administration's border policy."
"Tender-age shelter" seems to have been engineered to evoke a softer response. Tender, an adjective meaning "fragile" or "delicate," entered English in the 13th century from French tendre. A century later, it had taken on additional meanings of "kind" and "affectionate" – meanings we see in song titles like "Love Me Tender" and "The Tender Trap" and in the movie title "Tender Mercies," which is derived from a line in Psalm 25: "Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindness." Tender began modifying age in the early 1400s; in the current situation, it refers to children under the age of 5.
As for shelter, its origin is a mystery, although it may be related to shield. It's a more recent word than tender, first emerging in the late 1500s. Shakespeare was fond of it, using it in Richard II, Henry VI, Antony and Cleopatra, and other plays. Air-raid shelter was coined during World War I; shelter cough appeared during the London Blitz of 1940, when respiratory illnesses spread quickly among people waiting out the air raids in Tube stations. Animal shelter is surprisingly recent; the OED's earliest citation is from 1971. Tax shelter is a decade older, and first appeared in the U.K. Shelter magazine – a publication devoted to houses and their furnishings – is a U.S. coinage that dates back to 1946.
Tender-age shelter denotes a grim reality, but the word it beat in a runoff, yeet, is much more lighthearted. Yeet, which had already won in the Slang/Informal category, is "a versatile word that can be used as an exclamation, a verb, or even a noun," according to the top definition in Urban Dictionary, entered in June 2018. Its earliest definition, from 2014, is "to violently throw an object you deem to be worthless," but lately it's taken on additional meanings. During the ADS vote – done by voice acclamation in a ballroom at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel – attendees were "yeet-ing like the seagulls in Finding Nemo," tweeted Ed Cormany, a linguist who provided play-by-play.
I had to participate virtually in this year's WOTY vote, but I've attended past events, which have been lively and good-humored, if often impassioned. Words are nominated in a semi-formal session the day before the general vote, but impromptu nominations are also accepted. Surprises happen. This year, for example, with some 300 linguists, lexicographers, editors, writers, and graduate students crowding the room, deleted-family unit – "a bureaucratic term that referred to asylum-seeking families whose children were removed" – was nominated from the floor … and it won in its category ("WTF Word of the Year"), triumphing over emotional-support peacock, soy boy, and other contenders. And although the overall winner, tender-age shelter, is a euphemism (and a close counterpart to deleted-family unit), it wasn't the winner in the Euphemism of the Year category. That honor went to racially charged, defined as "a circumlocution for 'racist'." Along with other category winners (the) wall, white-caller crime, and techlash, it represented a pessimistic trend in this year's vote. The subtext: Get your yeets while you can, and watch out for those Orwellian weasel words.
Read about past words of the year.