The year in words: a recap of 2013

selfieA number of organizations throughout the English-speaking world publish annual lists of what they consider to be THE “words of the year.” Not surprisingly, many of the words that have made these lists over the last decade have been related to the Internet and social networking. Selfie made a big splash with those on the lookout for neologisms during 2013, as did qwerty monsters (adolescents addicted to mobile phone messaging), phubbing (a social snub that consists of focusing one’s attention on a mobile phone rather than interacting with other people), a barrage of new abbreviations using in digital media such as BYOD (bring your own device) and FOMO (fear of missing out), and click and collect (an arrangement whereby shoppers can order online and pick up merchandise at a local retail outlet). All of these terms were added to the Oxford Dictionary this year. Bitcoin is another term that is quickly becoming a household word, and digital fabrication has been making waves ever since newspapers started publishing stories about people producing handguns with “3-D” printers. Responsive website design was another word frequently bandied about during 2013. For the uninitiated out there, it’s a design that ensures online content is optimally displayed on a wide range of digital devices.

leaving-cupertino-650x0Thanks to Tom Chatfield’s list of “The ten best words the Internet has given English,” published in the Guardian way back in April, I now know the origins of two other Internet-related expressions that were coined prior to 2013 but were new to me: Scunthorpe problem and Cupertino effect. According to Mr. Chatfield, the term Scunthorpe problem was christened after a town in England whose residents were temporarily prevented from creating AOL accounts by “filth filters” that took exception to a four-letter word embedded in the name Scunthorpe. Apparently the folks in Penistone, South Yorkshire have had similar problems. The Cupertino effect takes its name from an early spell checker program’s failure to recognize an unhyphenated rendering of the word “cooperation,” which it automatically replaced it with the name of a city in California’s Silicon Valley.

The Interesting Literature blog points out that not every word described as a neologism is actually new, noting that tote as an abbreviation for “total amount” can be traced back to 1772 and that unfriend was current as a noun as early as 1275 and appeared as a verb in a book published in 1659.

A word that has really picked up steam over the course of 2013 is affluenza, which has been used to describe the morally corrosive effect of wealth on a person’s character as well as rationalize the aberrant, criminal, or uncivil behavior of the well-heeled in a court of law. Other depressing new niche syndromes include wannarexia (suffered by those who aspire to be anorexic) and alcorexia (the habit of passing up food in order to fit alcoholic beverages into a reduced-calorie diet).

flippedgraphic(web1100px)_0MOOC (an abbreviation of massive open online course) has been the hottest word in educational circles this year, closely followed by flipped learning and flipped classroom, the most prevalent terms used to refer to a teaching method by which students are expected to absorb assigned content independently and classroom hours are reserved for group debate, discussion, and application of course material. Sugata Mitra Hole in the WallLess talked about, but no less worthy of notice, is the work of researcher Sugata Mitra, whose out-doctrination (as opposed to indoctrination) educational experiments in remote rural areas of India have shed light on children’s capacity to conduct their own independent group learning projects using Internet technology. He has developed SOLES (self organized learning environments) in which children all over the world have delved into complex subjects with little or no guidance from teachers. His work with “Hole in the Wall” gangs through India was rewarded with the 2013 TED prize for innovative ideas.

Bruce-Springsreen-Marriage-EqualityWords that appear on annual lists are, in most cases, selected on the basis of their notoriety and frequency of use rather than the quality of the ideas they represent. However, an American blog called The Web of Language has bucked this trend and chosen “marriage” as its word of the year for 2013. marriage-equality-supporters-washingtonAs blogger Dennis Baron notes, “Marriage was a highly visible and controversial term for much of 2013, with the defenders of marriage arguing either against same-sex marriage, or—and they are defenders of marriage, too—in favor of marriage equality. The Court came down, five to four, on the side of marriage equality, rewriting the definition of marriage in federal law. In addition to ratifying same-sex marriage in states where it is legal, the federal redefinition of marriage impacted a broad range of areas from estate planning, Social Security, and the IRS, to parent-teacher conferences, hospital visits, and basic human dignity.” The Merriam Webster Dictionary also seems to favor an intellectual approach to the word-of-the-year-game. The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary’s word of the year for 2013 was science. According to M-W Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, “A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy. We saw heated debates about ‘phony’ science, or whether science held all the answers. It’s a topic that has great significance for us. And it fascinates us–enough so that it saw a 176% increase in lookups this year over last, and stayed a top lookup throughout the year.” Other words that figured this dictionary’s list of top words for 2013 were cognitive, rapport, communication, niche, ethic, paradox, visceral, integrity, and metaphor.

postingwAmong the interesting words and terms that have flown under the radar of most word-watchers this year is posted worker, a term that has cropped up continually in European Union debates about workforce mobility. According to the European Commission, “a worker is a posted worker when he is employed in one EU Member State but sent by his employer on a temporary basis to carry out his work in another Member State. For example, a service provider may win a contract in another country and send his employees there to carry out the contract. This trans-national provision of services, where employees are sent to work in a Member State other than the one they usually work in, gives rise to a distinctive category, namely that of posted workers. This category does not include migrant workers to go to another Member State to seek work and are employed there.” A number of service-sector firms that recruit workers in poorer EU countries to provide services in more affluent neighbor states have been accused of undercutting local wage standards, a situation the EC classifies as “social dumping.”

Some of the most thought-provoking neologisms I came across this year were mentioned in the book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, which introduced me to catchy labels for new social phenomena such as KIPPERS (kids in parent’s pockets eroding retirement savings) and IPODS (insecure, pressurized, overtaxed, debt-ridden and saving).

The UN Foundation’s Aaron Sherinian has been pitching a few new terms that are well worth acting upon in 2014, one of which is keynote listener:

keynote listener copia

He also talks a lot about philanthroteens—described by social activist Beth Kanter as “teens with a passion for social change and who grew up not knowing what it was like to not to have a cell phone or be connected to Facebook.” According to Tina Wells, CEO of the Buzz marketing Group, philantroteens and the prior generational cohort referred to by social scientists and marketers as millennials are making a shift from conspicuous consumption to conscious consumption. I’d love to see conscious consumption show up on words-of-the-year lists for 2014.

Can-doThe Oxford Dictionary blog (which chose the ubiquitous selfie as its word of the year) offers an amusing interactive timeline that lists newly minted words for every year from 1900 through 2004. If you’re wondering when expressions such as people-watch, chocoholic, ear-bending, or road rage first became popular (at least in Great Britain), you’ll love clicking through this feature.

The Global Language Monitor bases its word-of-the-year rankings on the number of times certain English words, phrases, and names appear in blogs, social media and news sites. It claims to track 275,000 media sources. Its number-one ranking of error code 404 this year indicates both the organization’s digital bias and our increasing disregard for discourse that takes place anywhere else. Pope Francis seems to know this better than almost anyone else: his Facebook page has over three million followers and his handle @pontifex made the number-four slot on this year’s Global Language Monitor list. This type of survey gives a rough idea of what English speakers were interested in 2013. While some of the words, phrases, and names listed are superficial, it’s interesting to note that global warming/climate change came in third after “toxic politics” and “federal shutdown” in the phrases category and ethical/sustainable fashion rounded out the fifteen-item list.

enough-with-these-postersWhat may seem clever at first hearing can eventually become nerve-racking. Lake Superior State University, which issues an annual list of hackneyed words and phrases we would do well to avoid, invites the members of the general public to submit words they would like to see and hear less often. This year’s selection includes bucket list, trending, fiscal cliff, double down, and spoiler alert. An article posted on about LSSU’s latest list adds a few more we could give a rest such as skin in the game, debunking, and gift (when used as a verb). My personal pet peeve this year has been the proliferation of silly takes on the text of the widely reproduced World War II propaganda poster “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s high time to declare victory and move on.

Fernando Vincent for El PaísFew organizations publish Spanish word-of-the-year lists. Most results of Google searches for “palabras del año” highlight articles in Spanish about English words of the year. However, new words periodically accepted as legitimate in Spanish by the Real Academia Española (REA) are always widely reported and commented on. This year it has come a cropper with its new additions. Argentina’s has taken exception to its admission of almóndiga (a variation of albóndiga, the Spanish word for meatball), toballa (a variation of toalla, the word for towel), as well as its decision to Hispanicize foreign words such as souvenir (suvenir), croissant (cruasán), and CD-ROM (cederrón). This year the academy has also been embroiled in gender issues. The Fundación de Español Urgente has characterized the academy’s refusal to accept the feminization of the titles of key liberal professions such as abogado (lawyer) médico (doctor), ingeniero (engineer), and arquitecto (architect) as “puerile discrimination” and urged professional women to adopt abogada, médica, ingeniera, and arquitecta. May the RAE have a better year in 2014.

1000015_mileurista_2013091006202020 is one of the few publications in Spain to run an annual article about new and widely used words in Spanish. A few of the words on its 2013 list such as selfie, twerk and bitcoin coincide with words that have cropped up on English lists. Purely Spanish entries include escrache, a term used to describe public protests mounted at the private residences of politicians. As the Spanish government has recently announced that it will slap astronomic fines on citizens participating in these protests, this term may be heard less often in 2014. Marea granate, a term that evokes the color of a Spanish passport, has surfaced as a euphemism for the ongoing flood of Spanish citizens emigrating to other countries in search of work. A word not on the 20 list but increasingly on everyone’s lips is miseurista, a play on mileurista, another term coined several years ago to describe young people stuck in €1,000-a-month jobs. slush fundWhat was considered a dead-end street before the crisis is now almost universally regarded as a career goal reserved for a lucky few. A miseurista is someone who is forced by circumstances to scrape by with much less than the now-envied worker who grosses €1,000 a month. Another word cited by 20 minutos is vapear, a verb that arrived on the heels of e-cigarettes (electronic vaping devices). I was surprised that “caja B,” a term equivalent to slush fund that has continually appeared in the headlines of Spanish dailies this year did not make the 20minutos list.

Ana BotellaSpain’s financial daily Expansión recently published a list of the most memorable quotes by Spanish politicians during 2013, some of which involved hilarious attempts to be clever in English. While politicians on the left said little of note over the last twelve months, their colleagues on the right rushed in to fill the vacuum. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy started out the year on a colorful note by informing Tobias Buck and Lionel Barber of the Financial Times that the Spanish banking system had “done a complete striptease.” Bits and pieces of the often unintentionally hilarious presentation made by Madrid’s mayor Ana Botella to the International Olympic Committee, including her invitation to “have a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor,” went viral this year. Not long afterward, she outdid this much-parodied performance by blurting out in a heated city council meeting that the ideology of the Popular Party, represented by conservative councilmen and women present at that session, constituted the driving force behind “the greatest progress achieved in the history of mankind,” a statement that could perhaps be best described as tróspido—a mothers and sonsnonsense word of obscure origin resurrected a few years ago by a blogger in A Coruña to describe the contestants participating in a pathetic TV reality show called ¿Quién quiere casarse con mi hijo? Tróspido could possibly be an offshoot of cróspido, a slang adjective occasionally used in Latin America to describe the erratic, fumbling gait of drunks. The blogger who made it popular in Spain claimed in an interview with lainformació that a friend “had heard it somewhere,” and a participant in a playful online discussion of the word’s origins suggested that it had been uttered by comic Luis Sanchez Polack (better known by his stage name “Tip”) on February 24, 1981 “to describe a three-cornered hat.” As a contingent of disaffected army officers who had stormed the Spanish parliament and held its members hostage for almost twenty-four hours were finally flushed out of that building on February 24, 1981 following an address by King Juan Carlos, this comment appears to be utterly facetious. Regardless of its origin and beyond its strong association with a lowest common denominator reality show that is now thankfully history, tróspido is still sometimes used to describe bizarre, awkward, embarrassing, ignorant, or shameless people and bizarre situations in which people fail to pull something off with the brio they had originally intended to demonstrate—the type of folks that Americans perennially describe as “the gang that can’t shoot straight.”

Portugal storm MyModernMetThe last term in Spanish that took me by surprise this year was ciclogénisis explosiva, a term used to describe a collision of cold air from the north with warm, humid air from the south over the North Atlantic, a zone referred to by meteorologists as “Europe’s weather kitchen.” Cyclone Dirk, which formed over North America and “explosively deepened” in the North Atlantic jet stream on its way to Europe, affected parts of England, France, and Spain this Christmas but thankfully skirted most of Aragon. According to Wikipedia, “Cyclogenesis is an umbrella term for several different processes, all of which result in the development of some sort of cyclone.” Such events that occur in Europe are sometimes referred to as “European windstorms.” According to current forecasts, large swathes of Europe are set for a relatively pleasant New Year’s Day with temperatures ranging from a high of 9º Celsius in London and Paris and 10º in Madrid to a balmy 15º in Athens. As this post is  already long enough to fall into the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) category, I’ll end by wishing my fellow word lovers a happy and meaningful 2014.

The photograph of storm reproduced above first appeared in the blog My Modern Met.