As a linguist who specialises in tracking slang and language change, there’s one holiday tradition I always look forward to: the annual selection of the word of the year.
Dictionary publishers and linguistics associations choose a word or expression – usually a new term or one that has taken on new meaning in the past year. Oxford Dictionaries describes it a word that reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year” and has “lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”.
Their choices nearly always spark controversy. Older readers harrumph they’ve “never heard of it”. Millennials and Generation Z dismiss it as “so last year”. Pedants protest that “it’s more than one word”.
In recent years, publishers have tried to appear objective by releasing a shortlist, selected by scanning massive digital collections of language (called corpora) to track how frequently words are used. They then invite the public to vote on their favourite. This is how we got Oxford Dictionaries’ 2023 pick, “rizz” – a shortened version of “charisma” used to denote attractiveness or charm.
Individual linguists and lexicographers take a more subjective approach, inviting colleagues or followers to nominate terms, or (as I admit to doing) relying on their own informal reading and assumed expertise.
The 2023 words of the year
Cambridge Dictionaries opted for the more specific “hallucinate”, in its new sense of AI’s destabilising tendency to provide false information or veer into incoherence while the Economist magazine chose the name of the chatbot tool ChatGPT.
US dictionary Merriam-Webster announced their choice of “authentic”, noting its role in discourse about AI, celebrity and social media.
Australian publishers regularly supply quirky new terms from down under. This year, Macquarie Dictionaries selected “cozzie livs”, an irreverent nickname for the cost of living crisis that I first recorded a year ago in the UK. The Australian National Dictionary Centre has chosen “Matilda”, the nickname for members of their national women’s soccer team.
Highlights from history
The tradition of choosing the year’s most evocative, apt or significant expression dates back to 1970 in Germany and to 1990 in the Anglosphere.
One of the first official words of the year was “bushlips” in 1990. Meaning “insincere political rhetoric”, it referred to then US president George HW Bush’s boastful soundbite, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries teased its readership by nominating the smiling face with tears of joy emoji. This resulted in predictable expressions of outrage from purists.
One of the features of slang in general is that it derives its glamour from novelty and exclusivity, but once it escapes its original settings it ceases to be cool. Last year’s Oxford nomination for word of the year was “goblin mode”, a nickname for sloppy hedonism that many users abandoned as soon as they coined it.
They can also be generated by lifestyle changes, trends and obsessions, mostly driven by young people. Many new expressions created and exchanged by younger millennials, Generation Z or Generation Alpha are mocked, misunderstood or simply ignored by mainstream media.
My picks for 2023
If I were four decades younger, my choice would be “delulu”. Short for “delusional”, this representation of GenZ attitudes and TikTok-inspired language change plays with the techniques of word formation. Cutting or reordering syllables, reduplicating sounds for comic effect and creating nuances or ambiguities of meaning are all features of modern slang.
However, I suspect that, like rizz, it won’t cross the generational divide or endure. It’s characteristic of these fashionable descriptors that nobody can predict which ones will last.
I fear that – just like 2020 – this year will be remembered more for worldwide experience rather than quirky expressions. My instinct then is to choose not slang, jargon or tech-speak, but something else that reflects the tragedies taking place in Israel and Palestine, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Not a new word at all, but one which, in the language of armed conflict and sectarian cruelty, sums up for me the particular nature of this year’s atrocities and the ambiguous doublespeak used to report them. My word of the year, as a plural noun or as a singular verb, is “targets”.