Leading up to the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year vote last night, handicappers might have favored such terms as selfie, twerk, or Obamacare as possible winners. But the society's selection was a bit of a surprise: the humble word because, which has recently expanded in new grammatical directions in informal use online. These days, because can immediately precede a noun ("because logic"), an adjective ("because awesome"), or an interjection ("because yay!"). It's fitting that a bunch of language scholars would celebrate such a linguistically innovative form.
As in past years, I was on hand as the Chair of the society's New Words Committee. On Thursday night we gathered here at our annual meeting in Minneapolis to come up with a list of nominees in various categories. Last night, more than two hundred scholars (members of the ADS as well as the Linguistic Society of America, meeting at the same time) assembled for the big WOTY vote, with the nominee list serving as their ballot.
Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the ADS, got things going by fielding votes in the Most Useful category, which set the stage for the voting for the overall winner. The Oxford Dictionaries choice for Word of the Year, selfie, was nominated in this category, along with some other creative choices: struggle bus, a metaphor for a difficult situation, and ACC, an abbreviation for "aggressive carbon-copy" (a cc on an email intended to undermine the recipient). But it was two more grammatically interesting choices that attracted more interest: because and slash.
Slash, as the University of Michigan's Anne Curzan has noted, has been branching out from its use as a name for a punctuation mark to a coordinating conjunction meaning "or" or "and/or" ("Do you want to come over slash stay a while?") Even more interestingly, Curzan has observed that her students also use it as a conjunction like "so" to introduce a clause, as in "I love that place, slash can we go there?" Clearly slash is heading into some new territory.
The same can be said for because, which in traditional grammar introduces a full clause stating a reason ("I love ice cream because it's delicious") or works together with of to introduce an explanatory noun ("I love ice cream because of its delicious flavor"). What has been happening lately online, especially on Twitter and Tumblr, is that people use because with a more terse follow-up: introducing a noun ("I love ice cream because flavor"), an adjective ("I love ice cream because delicious"), or an interjection ("I love ice cream because yum!"). After a run-off, because won in the Most Useful category.
Then came Most Creative, including such nominees as bitcoin (the virtual currency) and robo sapiens (a term for robots with human-like intelligence). In this category, as Allan Metcalf put it, it came down to a fight between a cat and dog, or more precisely, between catfish and doge. Catfish, a verb referring to the shady practice of assuming a false online identity to lure someone into a relationship, beat out doge, the latest Internet meme involving ungrammatical explanations splashed over photos of cute, fluffy dogs.
In the Most Unnecessary category, there was no contest: everyone agreed that sharknado, the blend of "shark tornado" that served as the title of a Syfy Channel movie this summer, had the most limited utility. On the other hand, if you ever encounter a tornado full of sharks, what else are you going to call it?
Then came Most Outrageous, and the nominees were outrageous indeed, from fatberg, the gross agglomeration of fat and waste that got stuck in the London sewers, to s(c)hmeat, a term for meat product grown in a laboratory. In the final voting, revenge porn ("vindictive posting of sexually explicit pictures of someone without their consent") lost out to underbutt ("the underside of buttocks, made visible by certain shorts or underwear").
The Most Euphemistic category featured three nominees that our own euphemism guru, Mark Peters, discussed in his year-end Evasive Maneuvers column: demised (a banking euphemism for "laid off"), slimdown (a Fox News euphemism for the government shutdown), and least untruthful (intelligence director James Clapper's characterization of his previously not-really-truthful testimony). Least untruthful was the winner here.
For Most Likely to Succeed, binge-watching (indulging in a TV-viewing marathon) beat out contenders such as Obamacare, drone (used as a verb to mean "target in a drone strike"), and glasshole (a pejorative term for a wearer of Google Glass). As for Least Likely to Succeed, the winner was Thanksgivukkah, the confluence of Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, a term that we won't be needing again for about 70,000 years.
This year the society added a new category, Most Productive, since there were so many innovative suffixes that could produce new words, like -(el)fie (from selfie, creating words like drelfie "drunk selfie") and -coin (from bitcoin, used for other so-called cryptocurrencies, like litecoin). There was a runoff between -splaining (from mansplaining, explained by Mark Peters here) and -shaming (from slut-shaming and fat-shaming — again, Mark Peters was on the case). The -shaming suffix won out in the end.
Then, finally, came the overall Word of the Year vote. Nominations were taken from the floor, with because and slash carrying over from the Most Useful category, along with Obamacare and selfie. The rump-shaking twerk also made the list of finalists. But despite the competition, because won on the first ballot, the clear favorite of word-watchers who get excited to see a trusty old word used in novel ways. And with that, I bid you adieu, because tired.
You can watch the end of the selection process in this video that I took from my perspective as one of the vote-counters.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer