After a year dominated by upstarts like “selfie,” “bitcoin” and “twerk,” the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year honor for 2013 has gone to a seemingly old-hat vocabulary item: “because.”
Increasingly used to introduce a noun or adjective rather than a full clause — as in “because tired” or “because awesome” — “because” won in a landslide at the society’s annual meeting in Minneapolis, garnering 127 of 175 votes, well ahead of the runner-up, “slash” (as in “come and visit slash stay”). It also triumphed in the “most useful” category, ahead of nominees like “struggle bus” (as in, “I’m riding the struggle bus”) and “ACC,” or “aggressive carbon copy,” which refers to using email to undermine the position of the recipient by, say, cc’ing the boss.
Ben Zimmer, chairman of the dialect society’s new words committee, explained that casual online usage had transformed “because.”
“No longer does ‘because’ have to be followed by of or a full clause,” he said in a statement. “Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, ‘because’ should be word of the year ‘because useful!’ ”
Interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” about contenders for the American Dialect Society’s 2013 Word of the Year. (Dec. 31, 2013)
Later this week the American Dialect Society will announce its word of the Year. Renee Montagne discusses word contenders with linguist Ben Zimmer, who is the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.
In such unspeakable moments, words fail. This was true for those at the scene of the marathon, but also for many who watched from afar as photos and videos began flooding social media and the enormity of the crisis began to take shape. When there are no words, “surreal” ends up working as a proxy for more complex, inchoate emotions that are difficult to verbalize.
You might call the Word of the Year language’s annual “selfie” — which, incidentally, was Oxford Dictionaries’ pick for the 2013 honour. It’s the word or phrase that best mirrors the Zeitgeist, reflecting back to us the climate of a given year with brevity and imagination.
By early 2014, lexicographers, media outlets and professional wordsmiths alike will have revealed their choices, which are certain to vary based on the lens through which they view pop culture. There are, however, some clear front runners likely to make most lists — and whether or not you recognize them might say something about your own ability to take the pulse of a nation.
“Lean In,” for instance, was unavoidable this year thanks to the runaway success of the eponymously named book about women in the workplace.
“There’s a whole social message built into that two-word phrase,” said Benjamin Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s new words committee. “And it’s one where you can really say that in 2013, it came to prominence in a new way.”
“There’s an element of playfulness to it,” American linguist Ben Zimmer says of the slang, which is popular online, in texting as well as face-to-face communication. “There’s fun in sharing this in-group code. These are forms of language you are sharing with a group that appreciates what you’re doing.”
Call it the cutesification of communication. Or diminutivization, if you’re sweet on linguistics. Diminutives are word tweaks that imply smallness or, in this case, affection and familiarity. The -ie or -y ending (pronounced “ee”) is one of the biggies, but other diminutives include -let, -ling, -ette and mini-. They make speech sound fun, casual, less pretentious. “The childishness of it is intentional,” says Zimmer, executive producer of vocabulary.com and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a way of being endearing to a particular subject in either a loving or condescending way.”
Ben Zimmer, the executive producer of Vocabulary.com, suggested that “a lot of what might be considered the traditional SAT words might have been a little esoteric and also very specific in their meaning,” which meant that “you just learned this strange-sounding word and its meaning and you’re done,” rather than learning the kinds of words that take on different meanings in different contexts.
“Thug” is an immensely pleasing word to say. It has what linguist Ben Zimmer describes to Newsweek as a “blunt monosyllabic sound,” which it shares with many of our most beloved four-letter imprecations: the f-word, the c-word. And it is wholly unambiguous in meaning. …
Zimmer (who writes about language for The Wall Street Journal in a column called “Word on the Street”) explains to Newsweek that “thug” has had “a decidedly negative connotation throughout its history in English.” It was first used pejoratively in the 19th century to describe highway robbers in India who belonged to the Thuggee cult, thus insinuating itself slowly into the lexicon as a broad term for criminal behavior. And thugs have been “knocking out” innocent folks for some time: Zimmer points to a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from an 1895 newspaper article about “election Thugs” “engag[ing] ‘knockers-out’, who…belabour and disable voters as they are entering the booths.”