In 1990, the American Dialect Society named its first “word of the year” – a word (or phrase) chosen by a group of linguists and professors that encapsulates how Americans have been speaking for the past 12 months. The idea was conceived by Allan Metcalf, longtime executive secretary of the ADS.
“I was thinking, every year TIME Magazine chooses a person of the year, and they choose it not by some computer program, but rather the editors and readers making suggestions about who was influential,” Metcalf told TIME. “Why couldn’t we choose a word of the year?”
From “fake news” to “metrosexual” to “Y2K,” take a trip down memory lane and check out every word of the year since 1990.
“Bushlips” means insincere political rhetoric, according to the American Dialect Society’s website. It stems from George H.W. Bush’s infamous “read my lips: no new taxes” speech given in 1988 – which ended up being a broken promise.
1991: mother of all –
In 1991, the phrase “mother of all” was one of the most popular in the US – and it means the greatest, or the most impressive.
But the phrase was brought to the country’s attention for a darker reason – Saddam Hussein mentioned a “mother of all battles” in 1991, referring to the Gulf War.
Before Iraq invaded Kuwait, Hussein said, “The battle in which you are locked today is the mother of all battles… Our rendezvous with victory is very near, God willing.”
We’ve all heard of knock-knock jokes, but nothing was bigger in 1992 than the “not” joke. It starts off with a sarcastic statement, and is concluded with a resounding “not!”
This type of joke came back into the news recently when President Trump failed to execute one correctly on Twitter in 2016.
1993: information superhighway
The “information superhighway” is defined by the ADS as a “network linking computers, television, telephone, and other electronic means of communication.”
In 1993, the internet telecommunications network was gaining strength and prevalence in society. People – including future Vice President Al Gore, who coined the term “information superhighway” in 1985 – predicted that citizens, businesses, and organisations would soon be able to communicate rapidly via the internet (using videos, audio, etc.).
The technology obsession continued into 1994 – the word of the year was “cyber,” describing electronic communication and computers.
In 1995, there were two winners: World Wide Web and newt
British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web in 1989 as a means of sharing information via the internet for free. Its impact was starting to be felt in 1995, as household computers became more common.
The other word of the year in 1995 was newt, or “to newt” – a reference to Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had just released Contract with America, a future plan for the country if Republicans were to take control of Congress. As a result, the word “newt” means to make aggressive changes as a newcomer.
1996: soccer mum
During the presidential campaign of 1996, “soccer mums” became the unofficial swing voters. These women – described in a 1996 article in The New York Times as wearing “T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ‘I don’t have a life. My kids play soccer'” – were suddenly being catered to by politicians like Bob Dole.
But controversy surrounded the term even back then – many female politicians opposed the stereotype. Regardless, it saw a rise in popularity at the time, and is still said today.
1997: millennium bug
The millennium bug, also known as the “Y2K problem,” was a technical glitch that caused computers to think that the year after 1999 was 1900, not 2000. It caused mass paranoia at the time, and has achieved a sort of mythical status – looking back,many experts deem all the fuss unnecessary.
1998: the prefix “e-“
The prefix “e-” as it relates to technology was a relatively new concept in 1998 – and new words like “email” and “e-commerce” began to manifest. It seemed like the whole world was becoming “e-” – which stands for “electronic” – at the time.
The Y2K (aka “millennium bug”) panic came back with a vengeance in late 1999, and despite all the hoopla and preparations,very few computers experienced the glitch come 2000 – and for those that did, it was manageable. But the stress was widespread enough to make Y2K the ADS’s last word of the 20th century.
“Chads” are the small scraps of paper left over after punching a voting card.
The popularity of the word “chad” in 2000 stems from the presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. On election night in Florida, the margin by which Bush won was so small, a recount was ordered – some thought “hanging chads” were to blame. Eventually, Gore conceded and Bush won.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, reverberated throughout the nation. Almost 3,000 people died, and the country spent the rest of 2001 talking about and uniting to recover from this devastating event.
2002: weapons of mass destruction (WMD)
In 2002, President Bush justified the US invasion of Iraq by citing the possibility of weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. He spoke about WMDs in many speeches that year, making it the phrase of 2002.
A combination of the words “metropolitan” and “heterosexual,” a metrosexual is a typically urban heterosexual male who is “fastidious” when it comes to his way of dressing and grooming, according to Merriam-Webster.
A 2003 article in The New York Times describes the surge of metrosexual media at the time, including the series premiere of “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” – which was recently rebooted on Netflix.
2004: red, blue, and purple states
These 2004 words describe the voting habits of states – red meaning Republican, blue meaning Democratic, and purple being “undecided.” Their being chosen was a result of the 2004 presidential election, in which Bush defeated John Kerry by securing the votes of swing states like Ohio.
“Truthiness” means exactly what it sounds like – according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “the quality of seeming or being felt to be true, even if not necessarily true.” Late night host and comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word on his show “The Colbert Report” in 2005.
2006: pluto, as a verb (“to pluto”)
2006 was a historic year: the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met the requirements for a planet.
As a result, the proper noun, Pluto, was turned into a verb: the American Dialect Society defines “to pluto” as the act of demoting or devaluing.
The year 2007 brought with it the worst economic recession the US had seen in years. The word “subprime” was an offshoot of that unrest – it describes a “less than ideal” mortgage, loan, or investment, according to the ADS.
Many companies – and large parts of the automotive industry – were going bankrupt as a result of the recent recession in 2008. The economic turmoil would last until about 2009, and in the meantime the US government began to “bail” these businesses out with large sums of money. These were called “bailouts.”
Invented only a few years earlier, Twitter experienced a meteoric rise to success in 2009. Teens and adults alike were sending “tweets” – personal updates and messages – on the popular social network, making the birdlike noun and verb the word of the year.
As social networks began to rise on the internet, so did “apps” – or, applications. ADS describes the term as an “application program for a computer or phone operating system,” and cites the popular Apple slogan – “There’s an app for that!” – as largely responsible for the word’s ubiquity.
Occupy Wall Street was a progressive protest group that held its first demonstration in New York City’s Zuccotti Park in 2011. Their website describes them as “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process,” in addition to Wall Street’s role in the recession.
The protesters received a lot of media attention at the time (and continue to be active), making “occupy” a word forever associated with the movement – and the word of the year in 2011.
Yet another byproduct of Twitter, “hashtag” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014 – but a majority of the population was already familiar with it by 2012, making it ADS’ word of the year.
Before it was given its own name, it was just known as the pound sign – and it had been used by computer programmers since the late 1990s to sort items into groups. According to Adweek, it wasn’t until designer Chris Messina proposed using the “#” to group conversation topics on Twitter that hashtags started to appear on the site. Now, they’re used on almost every social media platform.
The usage of “because” in 2013 is certainly a relic of simpler times – the ADS named it the word of the year because of the way it was being used at the time.
Almost a sarcastic answer to a question, “because” was usually followed by a general thing, like “reasons” or “science.” Why, you ask? Because words.
The hashtag form of the movement Black Lives Matter – #blacklivesmatter – was named the word of the year in 2014 for its popularity and timeliness.
BLM gained much of its traction on social media like Twitter, especially following the police-related deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The #BLM movement’s mission is to “intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.”
In 2015, people began to understand that gender isn’t necessarily binary. The gender-neutral pronoun “they” is used by singular persons who identify as non-binary or other, or reject the traditional gender binary of he and she. The ADS chose to make it the word of the year for “its emerging use.”
According to their site, the pronoun dates back to centuries ago and appear in the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. And in 2015, “they” was added to the Washington Post style guide as an option for a singular pronoun.
2016: dumpster fire
“Dumpster fire” became a popular phrase in 2016 to describe any sort of chaotic or disastrous situation, and it was used – according to TIME – mostly in the context of the US presidential campaign.
2017: fake news
The term “fake news” is one Americans hear a lot these days – usually coming from President Trump or members of his administration.
Chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, Ben Zimmer, said on the phrase: “When President Trump latched on to fake news early in 2017, he often used it as a rhetorical bludgeon to disparage any news report that he happened to disagree with.”
“That obscured the earlier use of fake news for misinformation or disinformation spread online,” continued Zimmer, “as was seen on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign.”
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