Q. When is a word not a word?
A. When it is chosen to be the word of the year.
Here are two cases in point.
In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries (Oxford) selection for word of the year announced in October was a pictograph – officially called the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. Not to be outdone, in December Merriam Webster proclaimed that its word of the year for 2015, was the suffix – ism.
Our reaction to both of these selections ran the gamut from disbelief (Say what?) to incredulity (You’ve got to be kidding!)
In the announcement of its selection, Oxford explained that “Emojis (the plural can be either emoji or emojis) have been around since the late 1990’s, but 2015 saw their use, and the use of the word emoji, increase hugely.”
We accept that statement as fact. But, if it is true, why not choose the word “emoji” rather than a single pictograph and characterize it as a word?
We are not alone in our reaction to Oxford’s selection. Other commentatorsquestioned the choice.
We don’t know how Oxford handled the fact that its emoji selection had little to no mojo. We can speculate, however, that it might have considered posting a grimacing face emoji with bared teeth on its website.
Get the picture? If so, it’s worth 1,000 words. That’s a truism.
And, that -ism brings us back to Merriam Webster’s (Webster) choice. In its announcement, Webster stated that ism was selected “because a small group of words that share this three-letter ending triggered both high volume and significant year-over-year increase in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com. Taken together, these seven words represent millions of individual dictionary lookups.”
Those seven words were: socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism and terrorism. Webster could have picked one of those words as the wordfor 2015.
Instead, it picked the “three letter ending” that was common to all. Unfortunately, without a connection to the word preceding the suffix, this tells us virtually nothing about what was important in 2015. .
That’s so because, as Webster pointed out in its announcement, “There are 2733 English words ending in -ism entered in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged dictionary.” The choice of the ending gives 2726 words the same stature as the 7 words with “millions of lookups” that drove picking it.
That doesn’t seem to make much sense to us. Nonetheless, we do not want to create a schism or to engage in too much criticism. So, in the spirit of good will and to start the New Year off in a harmonious manner, let us conclude this part of our examination by saying we have a healthy skepticism about the choice of ism.
Moving on, are we making a mountain out of a mole hill? Does a word of the year matter? Perhaps not – but do words matter? Absolutely!
Gary Nunn argues this case persuasively in an article for The Guardian published on New Year’s Day of 2016. He writes, “By condensing an entire year into a word, are we being attention-deficit reductive? An 800 word article, let alone a tweet, are barely adequate space to round up a year, but a single word.”
Nunn continues, “There are benefits, however, in being ultra-concise. It can foster an economy and creativity to story telling. The saddest story ever told…is six words long” ‘For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.'”
He concludes, “Stories of lingering merit can be told in two lines. Years of catastrophic crises and spectacular surprises can be given a one-word précis…You can say a lot with not much.”
To reinforce Nunn’s position, consider the following: The Ten Commandments consist of only 179 words; Lincoln’s Gettysburg address had only 272 words; Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall.”; and, John Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner.”
Words have power both in their presence and absence.
Shakespeare understood this. He wrote, “Men of few words are the best men.” The Bee Gees put it this way, “They’re only words. But words are all I have to take your heart away.”
Let’s return to 2015. What were some of the other words selected or considered as words of the year?
Each and all of those words/phrases resonate with us. They describe what many Americans were seeing, doing and thinking about in the past year.
The one word which we thought that we might see nominated but didn’t in any of the sources we referenced was trump. Based upon the media attention devoted to a certain candidate for the Republican nomination to be president of the United States, we thought this person’s last name as a word might creep onto someone’s list.
There are a variety of definitions for trump. According to Merriam Webster, trump asa noun is “a playing card of the suit chosen to rank above the others, which can win a trick where a card of a different suit has been led.” The Oxford Dictionaries definition for “trump something up”, in phrasal verb form, is “invent a false accusation or excuse.”
The candidate of whom we write has used the latter to excel in the former along with his substantial media notoriety and name recognition to become, at least to this point, the top card for winning in the suit that has been chosen. Thus, the selection of trump as consideration for the word of the year might have been appropriate.
But, to our knowledge it wasn’t on any one’s list. For this, we say thanks for small favors and wish for the same in 2016.
We now look forward to 2016 anticipating new words and a new beginning.
Contemplating that beginning, we leave you with the same thoughts for 2016 that we did in 2015 borrowed from cartoonist Bill Watterson in his last strip on December 31, 1995 for his brilliant Calvin and Hobbes series:
– Hobbes” “The world looks brand new.”
– Calvin: “A New Year…a fresh, clean start.”
– Hobbes: It’s like having a big white sheet to draw on.”
– Calvin: “A day full of possibilities.”
– Calvin: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes old buddy….lets go exploring.”
Yes, let’s go exploring! Who knows what we might discover: Perhaps even some “peace, love, and understanding” – or, at least an emoji or two signifying the same.
Hope springs eternal. Happy New Year!
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