Language Corner

The words that defined 2018

January 7, 2019

Every year, we present the “Words of the Year” list, which is really a compilation of others’ Words of the Year. And every year, we remark on how short-lived/odd/contrived these lists can be.

Let’s give this year’s a fair chance.

As always, the lists reflect what’s happening in the world. Merriam-Webster’s WOTY is “justice.” As M-W’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, explained, the word of the year is determined in part by metrics—high volume of traffic and a spike in lookups from the previous year—which in turn often relate to news. With “justice,” Sokolowski told The Washington Post, “Rather than being driven by a single event, interest in this word correlates to many events in the news, including stories touching on racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, obstruction of justice, countless stories involving the Justice Department, and the specific use of justice as a synonym and title for a judge” (and member of the Supreme Court).

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Among M-W’s other top WsOTY (that’s the plural, we’ve decided), lookups for “lodestar” and “nationalism” also spiked as a result of news reports (the anonymous op-ed in The New York Times and President Trump’s labeling himself as a nationalist, respectively). Popular culture fueled lookups of “feckless” (Samantha Bee’s use of it coupled with a slur against Ivanka Trump), “laurel” (as in “Laurel or Yanny?”), “pansexual” (Janelle Monáe’s labeling of herself), and “pissant” (used by a radio station to describe Tom Brady’s daughter).

Not surprisingly, many of those were among’s top lookups for the year as well. But chose “misinformation” as its WOTY, noting that it’s not the same as “disinformation.” People who spread “misinformation” “often believe the information they are sharing,” the blog post says. “In contrast, disinformation is crafted and disseminated with the intent to mislead others.” That’s a fine hair to split, especially if someone shares “disinformation” believing it to be true, thus diluting it to “misinformation.”

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The most thoughtful WOTY often comes from the American Dialect Society, whose members, many of them linguists or other language experts, vote in several categories. For 2018, the society voted “tender-age shelter” as its top pick. Also rendered as “tender-age facility” or “tender-age camp,” the term “emerged in June 2018 when it was reported that infants and young children were being held in special detention centers after being separated from their families who crossed over the southern border, some illegally,” the society said in its news release. The chairman of the society’s New Words Committee, the linguist Ben Zimmer, said, “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.”

The runner-up for the ADS WOTY was “yeet,” “an indication of surprise of excitement.”

Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard either term: “Yeet” appears primarily in social media (only 25 hits in Nexis for the past year unrelated to WsOTY), while “tender-age shelter” appears mostly with “so-called,” indicating its relative unfamiliar (and euphemistic) nature.

The Oxford Dictionaries’ word, “toxic,” topped lookups on that site, both in the literal sense of deadly, but also in the metaphorical sense of harmful. “Our corpus data shows that, after ‘chemical,’ ‘masculinity’ is the most-used word in conjunction with toxic this year,” the blog post said, tying that popularity to the #MeToo movement “and watershed political events like the Brett Kavanaugh Senate judiciary committee hearing.”

Oxford skews British, and its runners-up included “Big Dick Energy (BDE),” defined as “An attitude of understated and casual confidence”; “incel,” short for “involuntary celibate,” “used as a self-descriptor by members of an online subculture who deem themselves chronically unable to attract romantic or sexual partners”; and “cakeism,” which Oxford says is mostly British and related to Brexit, meaning to “retain all the perks of EU membership with none of the drawbacks of leaving.” May those stay on that side of the Atlantic.

Speaking of the British, Lynne Murphy, a British linguist who looks at how British and American English intersect or diverge, named “mainstream media,” or “MSM,” as the “2018 US-to-UK Word of the Year.” The 2018 word that made the trip in the other direction, she says, is “whilst,” though she acknowledged, “In the US, it seems to mostly have a life in print.” (Our research finds that “whilst” is not common in the MSM: The newspaper to use it in the most in the past year was The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., according to Nexis, with eight citations, many seemingly from British sources.)

English is not the only language that gets to pick WsOTY. Katherine Connor Martin, head of US dictionaries for the Oxford University Press, tweeted a list of WsOTY in other languages. Among them: “bienveillance” (benevolence, kindness) in France; “moordstrookje” in Belgian Dutch, literally “murder strip,” “referring to a narrow bike path that is too close to the road, so many cyclists are killed on it”; “sororitat” (solidarity among women) in Catalan; “Heisszeit” (Warm Age) in German; “kulnun” (burnout) in Icelandic; and “wazawai” (disaster) as the top character in Japanese.

Then there is the bizarro WsOTY, words that Lake Superior State University says should be banished “for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness.” Among those were “collusion”; “ghosting”; “litigate”; “optics”; “POTUS/FLOTUS/SCOTUS”; “thought leader”; and, um, “yeet,” which LSSU defined as “to vigorously throw or toss,” not exactly the ADS’ definition.

In the end, as the lexicographer Kory Stamper wrote in The Boston Globe, despite all the debating and deciding, WsOTY are fleeting and sometimes specious: “Ignore the reality that, by mid-January, all this crunching and consideration will be forgotten by everyone except the handful of people who are involved in the Word of the Year announcements.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.