I went nearly this entire year ignoring an important milestone: 2011 marks the 20th anniversary of the American Dialect Society‘s selection of its “Word of the Year.” The list of words upon which the organization has bestowed the award reveals a great deal about American culture’s evolution over the past two decades. Here are some highlights:
1.) The very first ‘WOTY,’ from 1991, is perhaps the most obscure on the list: bushlips. A play on a popular obscenity involving bovine excrement, the word was a reference to then-president George Bush‘s habit of stretching the truth. I can’t recall if the idiom was resurrected for Bush II’s term in office, but the epithet has nevertheless faded from memory.
2.) Some Words of the Year seemed destined for success, yet fizzled out after only a few short years. Such is the case with the 2003 WOTY, metrosexual. The word describes a young, heterosexual male who has effete consumer tastes and impeccable grooming. Being young and urban myself at the time, I remember this word being all the rage in the early-to-mid 00’s. Sadly, it took less than a decade for the concept to become dated. Perhaps we’re less accepting of metrosexual materialism in the age of austerity.
3.) Another example of a word that receded from American dialects is 1992’s WOTY, …not! (a tag indicating sarcasm, as in “Those shoes look really nice on you … not!”). Any American between the ages of 20 and 50 knows what this put-down means, but only in a satirical way: the construction will forever be associated with early-90s Generation X culture.
4.) Other WOTYs are still used, but in a different context than the one originally intended. Such is the case with 1999’s Y2K. At the time, the acronym referred to a massive computer glitch that was apparently going to kill us all. Nowadays, the word is used to describe any stupid rumor of something that is apparently going to kill us all (e.g. “These 2012 warnings are going to turn out to be another Y2K!”)
Which is not to suggest that the ADS is unable to predict the survivability of a word. Quite the contrary. In fact, they created an entirely separate category from the very beginning of the WOTY awards termed “Most Likely to Succeed.” Within the first seven years, they awarded this superlative to such time-tested terms as rollerblade, snail mail, drive-by, world wide web and nail (as in to perfect something, e.g. “I nailed that left turn”). Even if the Word of the Year itself can end up being ephemeral, the ADS is eerily prescient with this lesser honor.
When you get a chance, check out the entire ADS’ Words of the Year Archive. It’s a wonderful trip down memory lane.