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Word of the Year 2013: blips on our radar

As OUP’s lexicographers go about our quiet work, occasionally a novel word, spied in a newspaper, a post, or a tweet, catches our fancy. “Possible WOTY?!!!” we might email to a colleague, anticipating the year’s end. When we go back through those old emails months later, it is sometimes difficult to remember what inspired such excesses of punctuation. Many of the words so identified seem to be passing out of English as quickly as they passed into it.

Graph of frequency (per billion) of selected words on the Oxford New Monitor Corpus

Graph of frequency (per billion) of selected words on the Oxford New Monitor Corpus

 

Detail of selected items from the previous graph

Detail of selected items from the previous graph

 

As the graph of their frequency shows, some of these words soared, Icarus-like, to viral heights of ubiquity before falling just as precipitously as their associated memes became passé. Others had a brief moment in the spotlight as the media covered a particular event. Still others have persisted at low levels of usage for years already, and made a valiant but so far unsuccessful bid for currency this year; they may just make it someday. Here are some of our favorite flashes in the lexical pan of 2013:

Brexit
A blend of British and exit, this word, referring to the theoretical exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, first emerged in the summer of 2012. It is modeled on the earlier term Grexit, for a theoretical Greek exit from the Eurozone. Brexit saw a boost in frequency in January of this year, when David Cameron proposed a referendum on UK membership in the EU. A smaller spike in usage was observed in May, when Conservative MPs Peter Bone and John Baron proposed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expressing regret over the lack of legislation for such a referendum. There is little evidence, however, of the word being taken up in general usage outside the realm of political analysts.

chapulling
When Prime Minister Erdoğan referred to people participating in the protests which began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park as çapulcu (‘looters’) in early June, the protesters reappropriated the negative word as a positive self-designation, and even formed it into an English word: chapulling. The word turned up on T-shirts, in graffiti, and on placards, as well as being mentioned enough amongst English speakers to register on our corpus. Additional protests have taken place in Turkey since June, but chapulling’s usage (in English texts, at least) seems to have faded away.

fatberg
It’s disgusting, and there is a word for it: giant gobs of flushed wipes bound together by fat are apparently clogging London’s sewer system. When the phenomenon was reported in August, we saw a sizable spike in mentions of the word, but evidence quickly died away again. After all, it’s not really something that anyone wants to talk about.

Harlem shake
Was it really only February when everyone was making Harlem shake videos? There is a fine line between popular and passé, and this meme seems to have crossed it by mid-March.

precariat
This seems like a word that is ripe to be embraced: a clever blend of precarious and proletariat, it refers to an emerging class of the working poor facing increasing economic uncertainty and unpredictability. The word seems to have been coined by the sociologist Guy Standing (he published a book of that title in 2011, but used the word as early as 2009). Precariat has been registering low levels of usage for some time, but it got a boost in April of this year when the BBC published the results of its “Great British Class Survey,” online complete with a calculator allowing visitors to find out where they fit in. One of the “Britain’s new social classes” was said to be the precariat. One might have expected this to catapult precariat into the mainstream, but our data shows the word quickly returning to its previous pattern of low-level usage after an initial spike when the survey was released.

sharknado
The most surprising thing about the word sharknado (a tornado carrying live sharks) is that it wasn’t actually coined as the title of a gleefully ridiculous disaster film, though it did of course aptly serve this purpose. According to Variety, a prep-school Latin teacher created a shark-bearing tornado logo for his school’s lacrosse team and registered sharknado as a domain in 2011. The vast majority of the evidence for the word in our corpus is in reference to the Sharknado movie, so it is not surprising to see that it peaked in July, with the social media juggernaut of the film’s release. However, during its moment in the sun, we saw some tantalizing evidence of sharknado being adopted in figurative use for ‘a powerful negative force.’ That usage doesn’t seem to have persisted for now, but sharknado will be getting another chance to influence English: a sequel to the movie is being released in July 2014.

Thanksgivukkah
In 2013, Thanksgiving Day in the United States occurs during the festival of Hanukkah. In these portmanteau-happy times, a neologism to refer to the dual holiday was inevitable, and as our graph shows, as the holiday approaches, the word’s frequency has soared. Sadly, though, it isn’t a word that many of us will ever have a chance to use again: the co-occurrence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah is a very rare event, and the next time anyone can expect to be lighting a menorah on Thanksgiving is 2070, when Hanukkah begins at sundown on Thanksgiving Day.

ununpentium
In August of this year, scientists published evidence supporting the existence of element 115. If confirmed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists, the element will be added to the Periodic Table of Elements and (most likely) given a permanent name. In the meantime, it is being referred to by the provisional name ununpentium (from the Latin words for one-one-five). This word only registered on our corpus in August, when the announcement was first made. We can probably expect another spike if and when the element is actually added to the Periodic Table and its permanent name announced, after which it will have been rendered obsolete.

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