Words of the Year and Where They Come From

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2017-01-18





What do the words Y2K, plutoed, tweet, e-, they, and bailout have in common?


Simple. They have all, at one point, been named as "Words of the Year."

You may have noticed this tradition, occurring around the end of each year. Dictionaries and websites come out with their idea of what word best represents the past year. Some of the words of the year for 2016 are "post-truth" (Oxford Dictionaries), "surreal" (Merriam-Webster), "dumpster fire" (American Dialect Society), and "xenophobia" ( But how did this tradition get started?

The First Word of the Year

The German tradition of naming a Word of the Year ("Wort des Jahres") began in 1971, thanks to the government-sponsored Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache, or, Association for the German language.


For the English language's Word of the Year tradition, we have the American Dialect Society to thank. Allen Metcalf (the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society for more than 30 years now) was planning the group's annual get-together of 1990 when he was struck by an idea. Taking inspiration from the method by which TIME Magazine chooses its person of the year every year (they take suggestions from editors and readers), he asked, why couldn't this group of word experts choose a word of the year? That year, the group selected "bushlips" as its first official Word of the Year, and as TIME Magazine explains, the word was "a portmanteau of Bush and lips…a little-known term for insincere political rhetoric, created to deride Bush's failed promise, 'Read my lips: no new taxes.'"


Dictionaries Add Their Own Words

Dictionaries joined the fun later, starting with Merriam-Webster in 2003 (they selected "democracy"), then Oxford University Press in 2004 (naming "chav" their choice), and in 2010, (choosing the word "change"). Originally, any word nominated had to be a new word, but as the years passed, that qualification fell by the wayside as more institutions joined in the naming of Words of the Year.


Of all the participants, the American Dialect Society is the only group that still chooses its word via a public vote, a vote that will count the hands of anyone who attends, whether they are a member of the Society or not. In recent years, hundreds have shown up to nominate, give speeches for or against, and vote on the Word of the Year. As well, the practice has spread across the world, with many countries participating in choosing their own words, including Austria, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, and Ukraine.


Looking Back at Past Selections

Over the years, there have been some surprises. In 2014, the ADS's winner was actually a culturally relevant hashtag (#blacklivesmatter), and I'm sure many of us recall the outcry that resulted when Oxford English Dictionary named an emoji as its 2015 Word of the Year.


It's an interesting experience to look back at past Words of the Year. We can see when "Not!" was at the height of its popularity (1992), or when tech terms like "millennium bug," "e-," and "Y2K" became popularized in the late 1990s. Each and every Word of the Year manages to (fairly neatly) sum up what was going on in the world at that time.  As we become further removed from the events themselves, the meaning of those specific words becomes clearer.


I wonder what future generations will think of the word choices of 2016? Hopefully next year"s Word of the Year winners will offer a more positive outlook!