Some of you on the East Coast may already be ready to declare cyclone bomb the word of the year for 2018, but first we must take stock of the words of 2017. This year’s meeting of the American Dialect Society took place in Salt Lake City. The cyclone bomb kept a good number of our East Coast colleagues at home, but we persevered, with Grant Barrett and Jane Solomon stepping in for Ben Zimmer to run the Word of the Year meeting on Friday night. At the meeting I first encountered milkshake duck — one of those wonderful terms that gives you a way to talk about something you now realize you really wanted a term for. Wondering what I’m talking about? Read on!
As I have done for the past couple of years, I’m providing the results on the winners in multiple categories as well as highlights from our discussions of various words; the final vote counts are available on the ADS website.
Word of the Year for 2017: fake news (“disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news; actual news that is claimed to be untrue”). Anticipating complaints about our picking two words as the “word” of the year, let me start by saying that compound words count as words for our purposes. And certainly fake news has been all over, well, the news. I also know that some folks may be concerned about giving publicity to a word that represents such a troubling and dangerous phenomenon. But at the meeting, the journalist Lane Greene (the “Johnson” columnist in The Economist) made a compelling case that we all have to be paying attention to how this compound is being used. He noted that dictators around the world are following Donald Trump’s lead in using fake news (or its equivalent) to suppress journalists/journalism. The press release from the American Dialect Society quotes Ben Zimmer, chair of the society’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal: “When President Trump latched on to fake news early in 2017, he often used it as a rhetorical bludgeon to disparage any news report that he happened to disagree with. That obscured the earlier use of fake news for misinformation or disinformation spread online, as was seen on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign.” Fake news (which also won the category Most Likely to Succeed) beat out multiple other contenders, including persister (or perSISTER, a blend of persist and sister; see below) and several of the category winners.
Political Word of the Year: take a knee (“kneel in protest against injustice and inequality, especially during a time when others are standing”). There were three strong contenders in this category: take a knee, persister/persisterhood, and antifa (‘anti-fascist movements and organizations, treated as a whole’). Persister, as you may recall, took hold in response to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s persisting after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to make her stop speaking during the debate on Jeff Sessions’s confirmation. Senator McConnell said, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Supporters of persister noted that this is a time when women are having to stand up for themselves and persist in multiple arenas — and it is a clever blend, with echoes of protester, too. Supporters of antifa made the good point that antifa has already undergone a striking semantic shift such that it has become an epithet used by the right, despite the fact that really all of us should be antifascist. All good arguments, but take a knee won by a landslide given the prominence of the debate about taking a knee (especially in the NFL) in 2017, its importance as a term of resistance, and its highlighting of the courage to protest.
Most Creative: broflake (‘a male who lacks resilience or coping skills in the face of disagreements or setbacks’). I agree that broflake is a nice blend (of bro and snowflake), which transparently picks up on the new, more negative meanings of snowflake. But there was another excellent candidate that got short shrift: milkshake duck (“person or character that is deeply loved until problematic behavior is revealed or unearthed”). Milkshake duck was coined in a 2016 tweet by Ben Ward, an Australian cartoonist, and then popularized in 2017 by another Twitter user, who listed Ward’s tweet as one of the 15 Twitter jokes to know: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist.” It started out referring to, typically, not-famous people who suddenly become famous and loved — often by going viral on social media — and then are relatively quickly exposed for unsavory beliefs, actions, etc. But it seems, at least for some, to have expanded its reach to any beloved famous person who is exposed in this way (e.g., Louis C.K. is a milkshake duck).
Emoji of the Year: hijab-wearing woman. This emoji was just added in 2017, and what an important addition — with a great story behind it. The addition was inspired at least in part by a 15-year old Saudi girl, Rayouf Alhumedhi, who was living with her family in Berlin in 2016. She was creating a group chat on WhatsApp with friends and realized that she was missing an emoji she could use for herself. She sent a proposal for the hijab-wearing emoji to Unicode, where it received strong support, and she got to participate in the design of the emoji.
Digital Word of the Year: shitpost (noun and verb, “post meaningless social media for the lulz [laughs] or the meme attention”). I thought something related to bitcoins/cryptocurrency would win this category for 2017, and there were two relevant nominees: blockchain (“technology underlying cryptocurrencies like bitcoin”) and initial coin offering (“capital-raising process to collect funds to start up a new cryptocurrency”). But there were multiple nominees from the floor in this category, and from the moment shitpost was nominated, you could feel the support for it in the room. University of Michigan undergraduates taught me this word this past fall as a new slang term; it is a common way to critique people posting unfunny or annoying memes, videos, etc. Two other strong nominees in this category: digital blackface (“when a (usu. white) person uses images of black people as a proxy for themselves on social media”), and ratio (which the Know Your Meme website defines as “an unofficial Twitter law which states that if the amount of replies to a tweet greatly outnumbers the amount of retweets and likes, then the tweet is bad” — and which now apparently can also be a verb, as in “Your tweet was ratioed”).
Slang Word of the Year: wypipo (“phonetic dialect spelling of ‘white people’ used to flag white privilege or absurdity”). Nominated by undergraduates at the University of Tennessee, wypipo is not brand-new but was prominent in 2017. (As we discussed with the word woke last year, the dialect society can also fall into the trap of thinking that words are “new” because more white people have started hearing them.) One argument for wypipo was that it usefully captures the idea that it is no longer OK for white people to deny white privilege. Shooketh (“mock-archaic way of expressing shock or excitement”) appeared in this category, as did snatched (“good-looking, attractive”), popularized by RuPaul, among others.
Most Useful: die by suicide (“a variant of ‘to commit suicide’ that does not suggest a criminal act”). You need an important piece of information here to understand why this phrase won. Among the changes announced by the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook in March 2017 was the shift away from using commit suicide (unless it is in quoted material) and the recommendation to use instead kill oneself, take one’s own life, or die by suicide. The change is motivated by a desire to move away from the verb commit’s connotation of an illegal act. The AP is not alone in this recommendation, and when style guides change something like this, there is a better chance it might stick. This phrase beat out, among others, angry react and sad react, which I posted about this fall after I learned about the terms from students.
Hashtag of the Year: #MeToo (“indication by women that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault”). As has been true for the past couple of years, there were several worthy contenders in this category, including #NeverthelessShePersisted (see above), #Resist (“slogan of the (anti-Trump) resistance”), #TakeAKnee (see above), and #ReclaimingMyTime (“Maxine Waters-inspired message of owning the narrative”). Despite the genuine worthiness of all of those candidates, the momentum of the #MeToo hashtag over the past few months swept this hashtag to a clear victory.
Euphemism of the Year: alternative facts (“contrary information that matches one’s preferred narrative or interpretation of events”). It’s already been almost a year since Kellyanne Conway introduced the phrase alternative facts to describe false information in a Meet the Press interview. There was a worthy last-minute nominee from the floor — internet freedom (“the end of net neutrality”) — but alternative facts was just too strong for the competition.
WTF Word of the Year: covfefe (“a (probably) mistyped word of unknown meaning used in a Donald Trump tweet”). It had to win. The widespread response to covfefe when it appeared, and then disappeared, at the end of May 2017 was, as you may recall, “WTF?”
That’s a wrap for 2017.
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