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10 Words that Defined a Year

While many people rang in the new year by watching the ball drop in Times Square or popping champagne, another tradition was celebrated by linguists around the world. As the year came to a close, dictionary companies and language societies announced their “word of the year.”

Each group uses different criteria to narrow down their selection. Most are based on search trends, pop culture events and political movements of the past year. The Society for the German Language started this tradition in 1972 and the American Dialect Society was the first group to announce an English language word of the year in the 1990s. Now, multiple organizations including Merriam-Webster, Oxford University Press and Collins English Dictionary release an annual pick.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable words awarded this title over the past three decades.

2020: Lockdown

“the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces”

Due to the COVID-19 containment measures, The Collins English Dictionary selected “lockdown” as the 2020 word of the year.

2019: They

“used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary”

In 2019, the American Psychological Association recommended using the singular “they” in place of other pronouns if you don’t know the individual’s gender identity or if the individual chooses “they” as their pronoun. The widespread use of the singular “they” pronoun led Merriam-Webster to name “they” as the 2019 word of the year. The American Dialect Society to select “they” as the word of the decade (2010-2019).

2019: Climate emergency

“a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it”

In 2019, The Guardian decided to start using “climate emergency” instead of “climate change” to define the current climate situation. Oxford University Press named it their word of the year as governments around the world declared “climate emergencies” and debates about the language choice spread throughout the general public.

2018: Overtourism

“the phenomenon whereby certain places of interest are visited by excessive numbers of tourists, causing undesirable effects for the places visited”

This term landed on Oxford University Press’s 2018 shortlist. Around this time, the tourism industry received backlash as popular destinations became overrun with visitors, leading to protests and tourism restrictions in certain European countries.

2018: Laurel

“an evergreen shrub or tree (Laurus nobilis of the family Lauraceae, the laurel family) of southern Europe with small yellow flowers, fruits that are ovoid blackish berries, and evergreen foliage once used by the ancient Greeks to crown victors in the Pythian games”

In May 2018, the internet divided over an audio clip of the word “laurel.” This virtual sensation made some listeners swear they heard “laurel” while others said they heard “yanny.” Enough people searched the word “laurel” for Merriam-Webster to select this as their runner-up for word of the year.

2017: Feminism

“the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”

Merriam-Webster selected “feminism” as their 2017 word of the year. Between the Women’s March on Washington in January and the rise of the #MeToo movement in October, feminism was at the forefront of many people’s minds in 2017.

2015: Binge-watch

“to watch a large number of television programs (esp all the shows from one series) in succession”

By 2015, viewers had grown accustomed to watching episode after episode of their favorite shows on Netflix. According to the Collins English Dictionary, the act of binge-watching was up “some 200% on 2014”, which is why they named this as the 2015 word of the year.

2013: Selfie

“a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media”

Oxford University Press selected “selfie” in 2013 as this trend began sweeping the internet.

2010: App

“an abbreviated form of application, a software program for a computer or phone operating system”

In 2010, Apple trademarked the phrase “there’s an app for that” and app stores became more ubiquitous on smartphones and devices. The American Dialect Society acknowledged this trend by naming “app” as their 2010 word of the year, beating out “nom”, “junk” and “Wikileaks.”

2006: Plutoed

“to demote or devalue someone or something”

In response to the International Astronomical Union’s declaration that Pluto is not actually a planet, The American Dialect Society named “plutoed” as their 2006 word of the year.

1999: Y2K

“the year 2000”

As the world prepared for the new millennium, The American Dialect Society named “Y2K” their 1999 word of the year. Runners up included “dot-com,” cybersquat and Pokémania.

Looking back at these words is a unique way to remember significant moments from the past years. To learn about other interesting words and languages, browse the ALTA Beyond Words blog.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.

You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.

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