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Words of the Year slug it out!

Jan 22, 2015

A commentator has described the various Words of the Year as filters, all of them framed slightly differently, through which we could look at the words of the preceding year. One filter might be the idea of the celebrity word, another the computer-driven greatest number of hits on the dictionary database.

Each of these filters is interesting in its way. The epitome of the celebrity word for Australia was shirtfront which came to prominence in ways that remain interesting to us. I have already explained why we think that shirtfront, while undoubtedly a celebrity among the words, is not a candidate for Macquarie’s word of the year.

The criterion of the greatest number of hits on a dictionary database seems rather more nerdy to me, since we know that that gives us a somewhat random mix of very old problems that everyone still needs to look up, like the difference between compliment and complement, and the occasional new problem that has surfaced because of a particular event. Merriam-Webster chose culture as their word of the year, citing expressions like ‘the culture of transparency’ and ‘consumer culture’ as indicating a different use.

I am, however, puzzled by the American Dialect Society’s choice of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter which by no stretch of the imagination can be regarded as a word at all. Their choices have always been offbeat and quirky. It is, after all, a bunch of linguists having fun as only linguists can, but this is a statement run together in the style of hashtags but analysed by any reader as a statement rather than a word.

Macquarie has a filter which allows through words which are new to the dictionary in that year and which could be said to have risen to the surface as indicators of what is new in the world around us.  They must have passed all the tests given to establish that they are lexical items worthy of inclusion in the dictionary. We feel that ultimately this view of how the world has changed will be the one that matters most to us. Indeed, as the years go by it provides a valuable snapshot of the passage of time, but to have that record we must keep the filter intact.

There is a place for the celebrity words too, but probably in the commentary on matters of linguistic interest that is published on our site as we go along. After all, celebrities tend to require instant attention, whereas the Macquarie Word of the Year takes the longer view.


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