Quantifying the Word of the Year

9 Jan


The oldest running “Word of the Year” is the American Dialect Society’s. And it’s getting chosen tonight (Friday, Jan 9th, 5:30pm PST). Folks will be live tweeting it so follow the #woty14 hashtag for the play-by-play.

There are a few ways to determine a Word of the Year. One is that you can go for a big theme from the news–this is what Dictionary.com did in choosing exposure.

Another way to do it is to look at works that have increased a lot in the last year. For Merriam-Webster, this was online searches for culture. For the Oxford Dictionaries, it was vape.

But there are other quantitative methods for finding words-on-the-rise. Here are two of my favorites.

Jack Grieve proposes that an “emerging word” is one that starts out rare in some time period and quickly rises in relative frequency. (His blog articles are very readable, you might also check out his presentation from yesterday.)

From Jack Grieve

You definitely will want to go check out his work, if only to update yourself on how fuckboy, m, hbd, fw, ft, gmfu, sm, squad, asf are getting used.

Another approach is to collect all the times people are explicitly saying they love or hate a new word. That’s what @hugovk did with various bots collecting sentences on Twitter all year, check out the work here.

The most discussed words from this standpoint are bae, thot, and no.

What’s a word?

Dirty secret: it’s actually hard for linguists to define what a “word” is. You’re happy that I will is two words in English but how many words is I’ll, what about ill in text speech? What about Chris Brown’s–what do we do with that possessive s?

Last year, the word of the year was Because X–a really great innovation where you can say something like because reasons. (Here’s an analysis of how because x is getting used.)

Gretchen McCulloch proposes that really the word of the year should be an emoticon or an emoji. That’s certainly near and dear to my heart from our work on emoji recently (here and here) and the fact that a big part of my dissertation was on emoticons.

If you look at what’s popular on Urban Dictionary searches across the last half of 2014 compared to the last half of 2013, you see a number of things come up that may also be worth a Jack Grieve-style analysis, things like basic bitch, bye Feliciafacebook mommyfriends with possibilitieshigh Qwill advise, and maybe my favorite, next level bullshit.

Finally, take a look at the OTHER categories in the Word of the Year competition, like Most Useful (vote for even as in I can’t even!) and Most Creative (like columbusing).

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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