Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year is “post-truth”, but what makes a newly coined word survive?

From the distribution of letters in a box of Cheez-It Scrabble crackers to the incorporation of new words into the dictionary, it seems that we are constantly fascinated by all aspects of language, and particularly by its newest developments. Today, the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year was announced: post-truth – relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Interestingly, this has links to ideas that have been around for quite some time. Centuries ago, Jonathan Swift (1677-1745) was lamenting that whilst falsehood flies, the truth comes limping after it. Similarly, for the modern era we have Brandolini’s law, “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” From a political perspective, this lends itself to highly expedient game-playing. Misstatements and convenient omissions are today’s front-page attention-grabbing headlines, and retractions are tomorrow’s tiny, overlooked addendums. The benefits gained from the lie may exponentially outweigh whatever consequences trail along in its wake. This kind of post-truth politics has even driven the rise of sites like Fact Check, Politifact, and snopes as audiences increasingly recognise that they may not be getting a fair representation of issues.

To return to the main point of this post, however, I find these Words of the Year/Decade/Century events linguistically interesting for three reasons – how a word is born and flourishes (or not), the social importance of new words, and the method behind identifying them (corpus linguistics). And since I’ve had some media interest in this already today, I thought I’d write out my ideas more fully here.

In the beginning, was the word

Not every neologism, or newly coined word, survives past its first use. We create new words, or new meanings for old words all the time. They might be acerbic, satirical, familiar, political, or even rather embarrassing slips of the tongue, but whilst some of these words and meanings will flourish and become a mainstay of our everyday lexicon, others will quietly die out. Predicting which ones will survive and thrive is difficult, but there are some general principles that can suggest stronger contenders and weaker ones:

  • Pithiness – shorter tends to be sweeter, and if the word can be pleasing to the ear, this is an extra bonus. Polysyllabic words may sound impressive when dropped into conversation (saccharhinoceros, triskaidekaphobia, rhinotillexis), but they trip less easily off the tongue, and if language has shown us anything, it is how ruthlessly efficient it can be. If we can say or write the same thing in a shorter way – I’m looking at you drive-throughs, doughnuts, aeroplanes – then efficiency will probably win out over tradition.
  • Uniqueness – the word in question needs to capture something that no other single word does. Language is surprisingly efficient in that it tends to avoid perfect synonymy – that is, two different words which have exactly the same meaning. If there’s another well-established word out there already doing the job perfectly well, then an upstart is less likely to succeed.
  • Relevance – the new candidate has a better chance of survival if it captures a strong emotion, movement, or trend. Great spasms in history – the moon landing, the arrival of the internet, Brexit, Trump being elected President of the US – each produces new challenges, fears, hopes, and ways of thinking which in turn require new labels.
  • Critical mass – the contender needs to be picked up by plenty of users, and one incredible method that has accelerated the worldwide broadcast of new words is the internet. Specifically, social networks such as Twitter are excellent for real-time proliferation of newly coined words and meanings. Already, the limited character count of sites like Twitter push users towards shorter, sweeter, pithier interactions anyway, so they are inherently fertile breeding grounds for neologisms.

These are not the only factors, of course, and exceptions likely exist for all of them, but from that point, we return to the nature of language. It is an intensely subjective and emotional phenomenon, not a logical, orderly, tidy construct. We can find logic and order in it, yes, but also plenty of head-scratchingly odd instances that defy any neat rules we might make.

Why do new words matter?

One thing I particularly enjoy doing with students is getting them to look back through the Oxford English Dictionary to find words that were introduced in the year of their birth. Many are surprised by just what was of national, or even global interest and importance at the moment they made their grand entrance into the world.

Let’s take a selection of ten from the dawn of three different decades just as a fun example:

1980 (171 entries) 1990 (117 entries) 2000 (19 entries)
air guitar, n. An imaginary guitar ‘played’ by miming esp. to rock music applet, n. A small application program agender, adj. Without gender
auto-completion, n. The automatic completion of a word, string of characters, etc., by a software application bi-curious, adj. Of a heterosexual person: interested in experiencing an (esp. first) sexual encounter or relationship with a person of the same sex blue state, n. and adj. A state (projected to be) won by the Democratic candidate in a presidential election. More generally: a Democratic state; a state which tends to vote Democrat
bimble, n. A leisurely excursion or journey, esp. on foot; an amble or wander boyf, n. A boyfriend cissexual, adj. and n. Designating a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds to his or her sex at birth; of or relating to such a person; not transsexual
biotech, n. biotechnology cereologist, n. One who studies or investigates crop circles click and collect, adj. and n. Of or relating to a shopping facility whereby a customer can buy or order goods from a store’s website and collect them from a local branch
boot, v.4 trans. To prepare (a computer) for operation by causing an operating system to be loaded into its memory from a disc or tape chemtrail, n. In the context of various conspiracy theories: an aircraft’s visible condensation trail, believed to contain chemical or biological agents released for sinister or covert purposes declutter, n. An instance of removing unnecessary items from an untidy, cramped, or overcrowded place
chuffing, adj. Used as an intensifier, freq. as a mild expletive or euphemism for fucking cryostasis, n. A frozen state of a person or body induced in order to preserve it for long periods fauxhawk, n. A hairstyle resembling a Mohawk, in which the hair is styled upwards in a strip running from the front to the back of the head but the sides
comb-over, n. A man’s hairstyle in which strands of longer hair from one side of the head are combed across a central bald patch in an effort to disguise it dibble, n.2 With the and pl. concord: the police geocache, n. In geocaching: a container, typically holding a number of items, hidden at a specific location; an item hidden in this way
foodie, n. A person with a particular interest in food D-lock, n. A portable, heavy-duty lock used chiefly to secure a bicycle or motorcycle machinima, n. The practice or technique of producing animated films using the graphics engine from a video game
gazillionaire, n. A person of great wealth drag and drop, v. To move or copy (an image, icon, text, etc.) from one part of a display screen to another pop-under, n. and adj. A window (typically containing an unsolicited advertisement) which is generated underneath a browser window and becomes visible only when the latter is closed or moved
gobsmacked, adj. Flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement gayby boom, n. A marked increase in the number of children brought up by homosexuals, esp. using means such as adoption, artificial insemination, surrogacy, etc. Sudoku, n. A type of logic puzzle, the object of which is to fill a grid of nine squares by nine squares (subdivided into nine regions of three by three squares) with numbers

When we look back at lists like these, some of these words have become so well-established now that it’s impossible to imagine life without them, but there are a few in there too that, whilst amusing as a novelty, have not really flourished (e.g. fauxhawk), and others that hint at older social attitudes (e.g. gayby boom). However those words may make us feel, all are important for their own reasons. A culture’s history is fundamentally documented in the rich tapestry of its language, and when we glance back over shifting meanings and new words, we see the rise and fall not just of nations, but of groups within those nations, of injustices, reparations, attitudes, dreams, and ideals.

People sometimes break out in an irrational reflex of horror about entering new words into the dictionary under the protest that such a word is just a passing craze. In reality, though, that’s all any word ever was at its inception, whether it was coined in 1616 or 2016, and in ten years you may look back at one of these new terms and wonder why it wasn’t put in the dictionary far sooner. Further, dictionaries are not here to prescribe to us how words ought to be used. Their function is to describe what we do with language. They are better thought of as remarkable living, breathing reflections of our society as it continues to evolve and develop.

So how does a word make it into the dictionary anyway?

Finding new words

Different dictionaries operate in different ways, but largely, they all take a corpus linguistic, or more accurately, a corpus lexicographic approach. That is, they collect masses of language from newspapers, blogs, tweets, books, conversation, and so on. From this, they identify emerging new words and meanings. Some dictionaries may posit a threshold of popularity, global distribution, or use in a particular domain (e.g. by a well-known person or newspaper) that the word must reach before it’s accepted. Whatever the case, with enough examples, the dictionary will craft an entry that tries to round out a fair and accurate definition of that new word. This is a lot harder than it sounds (said as someone who has tried to explain the problems simply with defining one word, troll).

But how do you go on to be Word of the Year? For that, a panel constructs a shortlist of those words that are especially popular, impactful, and of-the-moment, and then the voting and deciding can begin. For a specific example of this, you can read about Oxford Dictionary’s own particular approach to finding their Words of the Year here.

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