Every year in January, a group of linguists gets to vote on the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year (WOTY). I inevitably follow the digital conversation on this decision with bated breath, and someday I swear I will show up to be part of the vote myself.
It’s now official, because linguists said so – 2016 really was an actual dumpster fire 🗑🔥.
Ok, that’s not actually what the WOTY designation means – the selection has more to do with the prominence and significance of the word* than its aptness or accuracy. My favourite element of this year’s decision is that the term came out of the ’emoji of the year’ nomination category, so the visual play component is recognized as central to the wordplay and the word’s meaning.
My favourite part of the WOTY discussion is rarely the winning term itself, though, as I always find the list of nominees full of rich examples of humans’ (or English speakers’, at least) creativity, hilarity, capacity for reacting to social change, and often, incredibly baffling oddness. Some categories this year were pretty heavily dominated by US election terminology and events – including “locker room banter” under euphemism of the year, and both “bigly” and “yuuuuuge” under wtf word of the year – but the list also includes some really interesting linguistic shift. A highlight for me is the recognition of a verb form of “@” under digital word of the year (as in ‘don’t @ me’, meaning ‘don’t include me in a reply [on Twitter]’). Had I been present at this year’s vote, though, I think I’d have been backing the “-exit” forms (Brexit, Grexit, Calexit), because it’s such a simple combination that ends up being so productive and applicable.
As the announcement page notes, the point of this is not to anoint these (usually new) terms with some kind of official sanction – it’s to embrace the playful and creative potential that words give us for dealing with even the largest dumpster fires. Words are awesome. Let’s give them awards.
*I’ve seen some gen pop commentary that “dumpster fire” is two words, but that question is, of course, a prescriptive interpretation of what counts as a “word”. The (metaphorical) meaning of the combined item “dumpster fire” is a thing in itself, not (just) a combination of the two source items.