Vocabulary, terminology, acronyms, and usage: field notes for 2014 part I

Words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

—T. S. Eliot, Quartet I, Burnt Norton, 1935

I like good strong words that mean something. 

Louis May Alcott

     Creating and distributing word of the year lists has become somewhat of a cottage industry. As a translator and copy editor, I’m eager to keep up with shifts in usage and I Captura de pantalla 2014-10-04 a la(s) 23.12.38appreciate knowing the point at which certain words have gained enough popularity and/or relevance to be included in the dictionaries I work with. However, many of the words included on word of the year lists strike me as being eminently forgettable, and the criteria for their inclusion severely limited. Public discourse in the age of mass digital communication is marked by the rapid appearance and disappearance of inconsequential jargon of fleeting interest. Choosing words of the year on the basis of the frequency in which they appear in mass media and on the Internet during a given year seems to me to be an effective way of dumbing down a language and sweeping some of a year’s most important issues under the rug.

     This year, I kept a running list of words that caught my attention as I translated and edited documents, took online courses, and read newspapers, bulletins, books, and reports. Some tickled my funny bone and others prompted me to do further research. A few even inspired me to change the way I went about things in my personal and professional life. The following is a list of words that I stumbled upon and considered extraordinary in one way or the other in 2014.


     Moving through the list alphabetically, I’ll start with avatar, which I jotted down some months ago due to a meaning this word can have in Spanish but not in English. To begin with, it’s worth noting that English and Spanish dictionaries rank shared exceptions for this word differently. Spanish dictionaries give primacy to a meaning not accepted by their avatarEnglish counterparts, which is “vicisitud o acontecimiento contrario al desarrollo o la buena marcha de algo.” Whereas the online Merriam Webster Dictionary offers four exceptions for this word: 1) the incarnation of a Hindu deity (as Vishnu); 2) an incarnation in human form; 3) a variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity; and 4) an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user (as in a computer game), the website of the Real Academia Española offers only three: 1) a vicissitude or event that has a negative impact on something; 2) the virtual identity assumed by a user online; and 3) the incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Although expressions such as the “los avatares de la guerra” and “los avatares de la vida diaria” are very common in both written and spoken Spanish, the adoption of the word avatar as a synonym for vicissitude in Spanish appears to have stemmed from a malapropism so frequently repeated that the word eventually took on this meaning in common parlance. Beginning translators should take note of this potential stumbling block.

     On June 10, The Guardian publicly lamented the Collins English Dictionary’s acceptance of adorkable (a portmanteau of “dork” and “adorable”), suggesting that while it has become popular on Twitter, it’s doubtful that many people actually use it in everyday speech. While I hope that’s the case, the same article notes that “author and Guardian journalist Lucy Mangan, writing for Collins, said that including adorkable in the new edition of the Collins English Dictionary would allow the publisher ‘to close the gap between the recording of a living language and its movements in the real world more than ever before.’”

     While translating a series of documents for an NGO that devotes its efforts to very different range of real-world issues, I came across the melodic word Artemisinin, known in Chinese as Qinghaosu. A derivative of Artemisia annua (Sweet Wormwood), an herb long employed in traditional Chinese medicine, Artemisinin is now the main component of drugs commonly used in the treatment of Plasmodium falciparum malaria. According to the WHO, the use of Artemisinin-based combination therapies has greatly reduced the problem of malaria throughout the world.

Albedo     A number of the words on my 2014 list are related to climate change. Given that a make-or-break UN climate summit will be held in Paris next year, these are words to watch. Two of them of are “A” words. As defined by the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, albedo is “a non-dimensional, unitless quantity that indicates how well a surface reflects solar energy.” Its website explains the dynamics between melting sea ice and the planet’s capacity to reflect solar energy.

     Anthropocene is a word coined by researcher Eugene F. Stoemer and popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and others to describe the dawn of new geological era in which humans have a change-making impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

     Somewhat related is astroturfing, a term that could suggest something that happens in a football stadium but is frequently used to describe “an artificially manufactured political movement designed to give the appearance of grass roots activism.”

     The twenty-third edition of the Diccionario de la lengua española, which came out in October, contains a number of new words beginning with the letter “A”. These include agroturismo (agrotourism), antipersona (antipersonnel), and amague, a word used in Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay to describe an indication or sign that something previously anticipated is not going to happen but that signifies “a gesture that indicates the intention to do something” in Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico).


     Brandalism is a newly invented word that has quickly taken on divergent meanings. Yet to be included in mainstream English dictionaries, it does show up on various online glossary sites, which all describe it as a portmanteau word formed by fusion of “brand” andbanksy “vandalism” but offer differing opinions as to what it actually refers to. Whereas the Urban Dictionary defines brandalism as “the creeping corporatisation of schools, libraries and other public buildings, which are gradually being daubed with company logos and slogans” and attributes the word to graffiti artist Banksy, Wiktionary.com and Wordnik offer two conflicting definitions: 1) the encroachment of ads, logos, and other types of corporate branding into public and traditionally non-commercial spaces, or the dissemination of corporate messages through methods or mediums not typically used for marketing purposes, and 2) the deliberate defacement of corporate iconography, generally for purposes of protest, parody, or social commentary. As one can easily see, context is everything in the interpretation of this word, which could just as easily be used to describe corporate advertising on school buses or graffiti attacks on corporate billboards.

     Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and UN sustainability advisor Jeffery Sachs has a lot to say about backcasting, which is a method of planning for the future that starts with the end in mind and rigorously follows the steps required to achieve that goal.

     “B” words describing corruption proliferated throughout 2014 here in Spain. The news has been dominated by stories about “pagos en b,” (a term used for everything from bribes and illegal commissions to undeclared income supplements) to “cuentas b” (which range from undeclared Swiss banks accounts maintained by tax evaders to political slush funds).


     Chupacabra, a Spanish word that can be literally translated as “goatsucker,” is the Caprimulgus-ruficollisname given in Latin America to a mythical beast that supposedly preys upon chickens and goats. It should not be confused with the very real chotacabra (nightjar), whose Latin name, Caprimulgidae, nevertheless stems from an ancient belief that these birds  actually suck milk from goats. The chupacabra myth appears  to be a case of European superstition taking root in the New World.

    The Oxford Dictionary has accepted the term clickbait, and the recently published Fifth Edition of The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary includes chillax (a fusion of “chill out” and “relax”).

    The new edition of the Diccionario de la lengua española includes the delightful if somewhat scatological word cagaprisas, which is used to describe an impatient person whose rush to do things without thinking often has negative consequences. (Not to be used in polite company.)

     As I translate and edit a substantial number of PR documents and academic articles about communications every year, the neologism churnalism (a portmanteau of churn and journalism) immediately caught my eye.

The Duchess of Alba

The Duchess of Alba

     One of the most delightful words I came across in Spanish newspapers this year was carpetovetónico, used by Luz Sanchez-Mellado in an article published in el País on November 23 about the demise (in some cases literal and others figurative) of a long list of colorful characters once adulated by the Spanish press and public as the country’s most beautiful people. According to the Real Academia Española, the term, which draws upon the names of the carpetones and the vetones (pre-Roman tribes that peopled the heart of the Iberian Peninsula,) describes individuals known for playing archetypal Spanish identities to the hilt. Age, financial crisis, and corruption scandals have swept many these celebrities from the chessboard of Spanish cafe society during 2014. The flamenco-loving Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart (a direct descendant of King James II of England and the most titled person in the world) passed away in Seville on November 20 at the age of 88 just hours before her friend, the copla singer Isabel Pantoja, entered a nearby prison to serve a two-year sentence for money laundering. Pantoja’s former boyfriend Julian Muñoz—once mayor of the glittering seaside city of Malaga—had been brought to justice earlier on corruption charges. The popular torero Ortega Cano also ended up in jail this year—in his case, for drunken driving and reckless manslaughter. In what has been an annus horribilis for the Spanish royal family, the aging and increasingly discredited King Juan Carlos abdicated in favor of his son Felipe, while the new king’s sister, the Princess Cristina, fought off charges of tax evasion and her husband Iñaki Undangarin grimly faced a raft of more serious charges. Carpetovetónico is somewhat related to another term further down the list, Marca España.


     Disincentivise (as well as its antonym incentivitise) are, according to the UK Government Digital Service Content Style Guide, two words that folks preparing written communications for GOV.UK “can do without.” The guide also advises against linking the verb “deliver” with abstract concepts (deliver all the pizzas, mail and services you want but look for another word if you’re thinking about priorities and improvements) and using the word “deployment” in conjunction with anything other than military troops and software. Recommendations for “D” words don’t stop there. Writers are reminded that “you can only drive vehicles; not schemes or people” and that “drive out” should not be used unless one is speaking of cattle.

       Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot

    An article in PS Mag brought my attention to the Diderot effect, a term coined by anthropologist Grant McCracken to describe the behavior of people caught up in a spiral of consumption sparked by a single acquisition that propels them on a never-ending quest of an idealized lifestyle. According to Wikipedia, a “Diderot unity” is a group of objects that are considered to be culturally complementary. For instance, the acquisition of an original Eames chair can lead a person to compulsively purchase a series of other objects from the same period that complement it and round out an idealized self image. French philosopher Denis Diderot was supposedly the first thinker to identify this phenomenon, which he explained at length in an essay titled “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown.”

     Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous (not to mention low-brow), 2014 marked the year of the DILF. Those of you thought that acronym only referred to the Diplôme Initial de Langue Française are behind the times. In 2014 it stood for “Dad I’d Like to Fuck”—a dubious homage to the David Beckhams and Brad Pitts of the world.

     Donor fatigue has severely restricted humanitarian relief efforts throughout the world this year.  Syrian American Medical Society reported back in May that because the United Nations had received only 28% of the 6.5 billion dollars it needed to provide relief support in Syria during 2014, it was being forced to scale down its two most ambitious humanitarian relief efforts: the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP), which serves internally displaced persons, and the Syria Regional Response Plan (RRP), which serves Syrians who have fled the country. A Reuters news story released in February anticipated the negative effect that an appeal for massive aid for Syria would have on other UN requests for funding, noting that this would be a “make or break” year for assistance programs in the Sahel region of Africa as well. At the more local level, charitable organizations and NGOs are increasingly launching crowdfunding campaigns that allow donors to support specific projects and missions.

     When I first saw the expression dyed in the grain, I thought it was a mangled version of dyed-in-the-wool, but I was wrong. Quoting Wikipedia once again, “Dyed in the grain refers to dyed with kermes or kermes in combination with another dye, producing colors such as crimson in grainviolet in grain. The original source for this information was John H. Munro’s “Medieval Woolens: Textiles, Technology, and Organisation,” featured in The Cambridge History of Western Textiles edited by David Jenkins.

     During the run-up to the recent referendum on Scottish independence an entire series of terms related to proposals for full fiscal autonomy for Scotland sporting the prefix “devo” were invented. Devo-Plus and devomax competed with other terms related to the same issue that ranged from fiscal federalism to independence-lite and independence-minus.

better world for nothing     I’ve got to admit that degrowth does not have the lyrical ring that its equivalents in French (décroissance), Italian (descrescita), and Spanish (decrecimiento) have. Degrowth theory advocates the downscaling of production and consumption to avoid a radical depletion of the earth’s dwindling natural resources and further degradation of the environment. This idea has been bounced around in environmentalist circles since the 1970s but is slowly gaining mainstream adherents in the wake of scientific evidence supporting climate change theory.


     Ebola was perhaps the most frightening of all the words that entered our general vocabulary in 2014. According to the World Health Organization, the current outbreak first reported in March is the most extensive and complex since the Ebola virus was identified in 1976.

     The effects of the economic crisis on this side of the Atlantic continue to inspire new acronyms. One of this year’s most memorable was ENDIES, which stands for “employed with no disposable income or savings.” Although ENDIES earn a fairly decent annual salary (according to theweek.co.uk between £18,000 and £28,000), that’s not enough in London to amass significant savings or dream of buying a house one day.

     Emission reduction pathway, sometimes referred to as deep decarbonization pathways or DDPs, is on its way to becoming a household phrase. This term refers to a nation’s plans, strategies, and policy for meeting future targets for harmful emissions reduction and decarbonizing its economy.


      Fatberg was the one of the words that the editors of the Collins English Dictionary asked the Twitter community to consider for inclusion in its twelfth print edition. This term for “a large mass of solid waste, grease, etc, clogging a sewage system” lost out to adorkable.

      Captura de pantalla 2014-11-28 a la(s) 15.40.47While tracking down the dates of this year’s Perseid meteor shower, I came across the term full buck moon, which I discovered comes from Native American culture. It turns out that there is a name for every monthly full moon that appears throughout the year: the full wolf moon, full snow moon, full worm moon, full pink moon, full flower moon, full strawberry moon, full buck moon, full sturgeon moon, full harvest moon, full hunters’ moon, full beaver moon, and full cold moon.


     Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines Global carbon budget as “the total amount of carbon that moves into and out of the earth’s atmosphere, seas, and land,” or as Law Dictionary.org puts it, the sum of the exchanges of carbon compounds (both inflow and outflow) that occur in the carbon cycle. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change, as of 2011, approximately 515PgC has been emitted since the industrial revolution began—about 52% of the cumulative carbon dioxide emission budget contemplated in the current “two-degree” negotiation framework strategy.

     In a bid to engage its target audience at a deeper level, the editors of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary decided to ask fans to help update the contents of its upcoming new addition. Crowdsourced geocache is one of the 5,000 new words to enter scrabble players’ vocabularies.

      The term gamification cropped up in a number of texts that I translated and edited this year. Through these projects I learned how game thinking and mechanics are being used to solve problems, boost user engagement, and evaluate job candidates.


     It was through Michael Quinion’s wonderful World Wide Words digital newsletter that I was first introduced to the very useful composite word hand-me-up, a recycling of the traditional hand-me down that describes things such as computers and mobile devices that children constantly upgrading their tech gadgets pass on to their parents once they are through with them.

Another new word that found its way into the Diccionario de la lengua española this year was homoparental, an adjective that describes anything related to same-sex parenting.

     I never accept purely medical translations, but as several of NGO clients provide humanitarian health care services in different parts of the world, I spend a fair amount of time brushing up on related vocabulary. The definitions of holoendemic and hyperendemic found their way onto my 2014 word list during the course of my work for these clients. According to Merriam-Webster, a holoendemic disease is a disease “affecting all or characterized by the infection of essentially all the inhabitants of a particular area” whereas a hyperendemic disease is a disease “exhibiting a high and continued incidence.” In a nutshell, endemic disease levels are the levels of a disease that are normal for a certain location or population, hyperendemic refers to endemic levels of a disease being higher in certain circumstances, and holendemic refers to circumstances in which a disease is universally present.

     I’m not sure whether hypercorrection is hyperendemic or holodemic in English speaking populations, but it certainly is common. My 2014 usage notes include a link to a nicely researched post by blogger Warren Edwardes about the use of “fewer” and “less.” Warren is one of those lucky souls to be blessed with both a keen eye and a good Captura de pantalla 2014-11-30 a la(s) 14.56.57memory. He’s one of the few people in the world who would notice a sign in a Waitrose store stating “Only 2 items or less from the shopfloor may be purchased at the Café Bar” and immediately remember that way back in 2008 Tesco had altered similar “ten items or less” signs in its stores to read “up to ten items” in response to complaints from customers who had asserted that the use of “less” in this context was incorrect. Many of the hypercorrectionists lobbying Tesco to change their signs argued that ‘fewer’ should be used to refer to countable units, and that ‘less’ was only appropriate when one was referring to an uncountable quantity. Tesco’s “up to ten” solution squares with the Plain English Campaign’s advice that “‘up to ten items’ is easy to understand” and neatly skirts the less and fewer debate. It is at this point that I need to add two more items to Warren’s long list of virtues: he has an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a set of English grammar reference books. Before flitting on to something else, that curiosity made him consult Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage, where he found a well-reasoned opinion in black and white. According to Fowler’s, “Supermarket checkouts are correct when the signs they display read 5 items or less (which refers to the total amount), and are misguided when they read 5 items are fewer (which emphasizes individuality, surely not the intention).” This blogger wisely adds the caveat that “the quote above is from “Fowler’s Modern Usage” and refers to current usage rather than rigour.”