2015 was a rough year on many fronts. Dave Barry’s Year in Review humorously dubbed this year “the worst year ever” competing only with the bubonic plague epidemic of 1347.
But from the ashes of adversity, heroes are born, and this year those heroes seem to be words—or, at the very least, our thoughts about the words we use. 2015 was a year in which we brought many commonly used words into question. Here are a few of these word revolutions of 2015.
Emoji—We have to start out with the big one. Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was… not a word. It was a delightful, multitalented emoji.
Talk about a representation of 2015: Is he laughing? Is he crying? Is he a he in the first place? The possibilities are endless. And so are the opportunities this opens up for the use of symbols in written English. I, for one, can’t wait to someday end an academic paper with 🙏💅💁💣💥🎉🎉🎉.
They—Sorry grammar pedants. Welcome to the wrong side of history. For decades now, we’ve been fumbling with gender neutrality in writing with clunky constructions like “he or she” or invented words like “ze” that just never seem to catch on. English, unlike other languages, lacks a gender neutral pronoun in singular form. They is gender neutral, but traditionally plural. So it’s long been said that it’s not correct to say phrases like “I have a student. They struggle with fractions.” Now, however, it appears that they is finally becoming accepted as the gender neutral singular pronoun we’ve sought for so long (it was actually a runner up for OED’s word of the year). They has become increasingly acceptable, both for writing about unspecified individuals, but also for those who prefer to be referred to using gender neutral pronouns. For those of you who had a high school English teacher who habitually hunted down every “incorrect” use of this pronoun, they’ll be pretty mad about this.
Refugee—Many of our words took on a new level of seriousness this year as well. With the continuation of humanitarian crises in the Middle East, global migration into the EU reached historic levels. All the while, there was debate over whether to use term migrant, immigrant, or refugee to discuss these individuals and their struggles. As I wrote about earlier this year, this is an important debate, as there are different legal (and moral) implications of each of these words. However, all of these terms still fail to indicate agency for the policies we’ve put in place that have forced refugee status onto so many. In this light, I hope we continue to explore our use of words for those we’ve made refugees.
Terrorist—Similarly, this year saw an increased awareness of how we label those who commit acts of violence, and the way this shapes our discourse around tragedies and toward one another other. More and more attention has been paid to discrepancies in who is designated a terrorist, and more importantly, who is not. Many noted this year that the label terrorist often seems reserved for violent actors belonging to “other” races and creeds, while white American-born males are designated as gunmen. (Update: This debate is already continuing into 2016.)
Thoughts and prayers—This year, we not only became conscious of the meaning of words, but of their perceived lack meaning. Last October, after the 294th mass shooting of 2015, president Obama noted that the routine response of declaring “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims” has never been enough prevent this from happening again. When this dire prediction came true with another widely publicized shooting in December—bringing the year’s mass shooting death toll to over 1,700, many took to Twitter to demand politicians turn their thoughts and prayers into gun control legislation that they had opposed in the past.
Selfie—It’s beginning to sound like 2015 may indeed deserve its “worst year ever” designation. To end on a lighter note… selfies! This year, selfie not only became an even more common word, but an even more common practice. While some interpret the new popularity of selfie sticks as a harbinger for the end of humanity, I hope we can get over this in 2016: We’ve been taking pictures of ourselves, our families, and our friends since the advent of photography. Yearbooks, Christmas cards, family vacation slideshows—they’ve been everywhere ever since. This is nothing new. We just no longer have to accost strangers or butcher “can you take my photo” in a foreign language. Can’t we just celebrate selfies for freeing us all from waiting for dad to figure out the timer-setting on the tripod?
So while this may or may not have been the worst year ever, it was a year in which words, and our thoughts on how we use them, made a difference. Here’s to another year of being lexical-flexible, and all the 2016 will bring!
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