As is the annual tradition, it is time once again to look back at the new and notable words of the past year. In 2015, could the most significant word have been a lowly pronoun?
As Chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, I've been keeping tabs on lexical developments in advance of the society's Word of the Year selection, which I will oversee at our annual conference in Washington D.C. in the first week of January. While various dictionary publishers have made their own choices for Word of the Year (Merriam-Webster picked–ism, Dictionary.com picked identity, and Oxford Dictionaries picked the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji), the ADS selection is the granddaddy of all WOTYs, now in its 25th year.
It's anybody's guess what the ADS will choose when all is said and done, but one intriguing choice has emerged among language scholars: they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. While they has filled the gap for centuries when speakers and writers have needed a third-person singular pronoun that does not specify gender, this year it has taken on new prominence.
As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal column back in April, there has been growing acceptance of singular they among editors, and the Washington Post recently allowed it into its style guide. One new development has been the use of they for a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person who rejects the traditional gender binary of he and she. And in the pronoun paradigm of singular they, the reflexive form often appears not as themselves but themself.
I could see they (or themself) leading the pack for WOTY this year, and already it has received support from Dennis Baron on his Web of Language blog and Gretchen McCulloch on Quartz. It would be an appropriate choice for a year that saw many intriguing developments on the language-and-gender front. There was also the gender-neutral courtesy title Mx., which, even though it was first suggested back in 1977, seemed to catch on this year, appearing twice in the New York Times. And then there was cisgender, or cis for short, as a complement to trans(gender), which gained mainstream acceptance and engendered (so to speak) many other cis terms. (See my WSJ column for more.)
Below I've compiled 20 additional words that were noteworthy in 2015, broken down into five categories. (The ADS has its own categories for voting, such as Most Likely to Succeed, Most Useful, and Most Outrageous.)
bruv: This British shortening of bruvver, a Cockney form of brother, made the news after a knife attack at a London tube station by a man who yelled "This is for Syria" before his arrest. A bystander was caught on video yelling back "You ain't no Muslim, bruv," and the response quickly spread as a hashtag on Twitter.
deconfliction: This military term for avoiding airspace conflicts came up when the U.S. and Russia held talks about the Syrian conflict. The Pentagon has backed away from the euphemistic-sounding term, though Hillary Clinton spoke again of "deconflicting air space" in a recent debate.
indaba: At the Paris climate change conference, this South African term from the Zulu language came into play. It refers to a consensus-building form of discussion, and it played a role in nearly 200 nations coming to an agreement on climate change policy.
surge: As a verb, surge has been surging, particularly in its transitive form, first popularized in 2006 and 2007 when the U.S. "surged troops" into Iraq. Now President Obama uses transitive surge with many objects, as when he said "we've surged intelligence-sharing with our European allies" after the terrorist attacks in Paris.
deflategate: When the New England Patriots faced accusations of tampering with footballs in last year's AFC Championship Game, the controversy quickly earned a rhyming name, with deflate attaching to the overused suffix –gate. The scandal was also known as Ballghazi, as the –ghazi of Benghazi competes with the –gate of Watergate.
opt-outer: Parents who wanted to pull their children out of high-stakes testing aligned with the Common Core standards formed an "opt-out movement." The parents themselves came to be known as opt-outers, though other possibilities included opters-out and opter-outers.
safe space: Campus controversies over racial issues at the University of Missouri and Yale brought this term to the fore, though it has its roots in the 1970s. Student protesters demanded "safe spaces" to discuss sensitive matters safely, though critics branded the protesters as crybullies.
schlonged: Donald Trump, never one to mince words, drew flak for saying that Hillary Clinton "got schlonged" when she ran for president in 2008. Trump claimed that the expression wasn't vulgar, and simply meant she was "beaten badly" by Obama. But as I wrote in Politico this week, this Trumpism has clear roots in a Yiddish vulgarity.
dadbod: Mark Peters flagged dadbod as a Word of the Year contender back in May, after it exploded in popularity as a name for a man's pleasingly flabby physique. Buzz over dadbod has tailed off considerably since then, according to Google Trends.
Netflix and chill: This newly popular slang term might win in the Most Euphemistic category, as it conceals a come-on for "hooking up" in the seemingly innocuous suggestion of watching Netflix and relaxing.
squad goals: Combining two trendy slang words of the moment, squad goals (hashtagged as #squadgoals) are what you would like your circle of friends to achieve. It helps if your name is Taylor Swift and your squad is a bevy of similarly fabulous celebrities.
CRISPR: Perhaps the science story of the year was the rise of the revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR (an acronym for "clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats"). If you want to know what all the fuss is about, check out this 90-second explainer from science writer Carl Zimmer (aka my brother).
dark web: The shady regions of the World Wide Web that require special software for access are known collectively as the dark web. One corner of the dark web is Silk Road, a platform for selling narcotics and other illicit stuff, which gained notoriety after its founder was convicted and given a life sentence in February.
swipe right/left: The dating app Tinder popularized two swiping gestures: "swiping right" on the photo of someone you might think is a good match and "swiping left" to move on to another photo. The peremptory swipes have now become metaphors for acceptance or rejection in the digital age.
wexting: The pernicious phenomenon of walking-while-texting has a portmanteau word of its own: wexting. Mallory Ortberg, Slate's new advice columnist, tackled the subject on a recent radio appearance, answering the question of whether widespread wexting signals the zombie apocalypse.
gig economy: "Gigs" these days aren't just for musicians playing one-nighters; a "gig" is now an on-demand job facilitated by an online service like Uber, Airbnb, or TaskRabbit. Some economists are predicting a gig economy with more and more people piecing together work through these new, uncertain work opportunities.
lift-off: When the Federal Reserve finally raised short-term interest rates after seven years of keeping the rates near zero, officials used the propulsive term lift-off. Whether the economy lifts off after the rate increase remains to be seen.
philanthrocapitalism: This term for philanthropy informed by capitalism dates back to 2006, but it made news this year after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that he and his wife would donate billions of dollars of Facebook stock to philanthropic causes, following in the footsteps of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
unicorn: Startups valued at a billion dollars or more first earned the sobriquet of unicorn in 2013, but this past year saw an explosion of new members in the Unicorn Club. Unfortunately, the demise of many such startups has necessitated a more morbid coinage: unicorpse.
Ben Zimmer 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