English Word of the Year for 2012

As it says in the introduction of our ESL book Speak English Like an American, the English language is very dynamic, always changing to let in new words and expressions. ESL students are challenged to “stay on top” of emerging new slang and expressions (many native speakers are similarly challenged!).

Believe it or not, a lot of people spend a lot of time trying to decide what the English Word of the Year is each year. In fact, hundreds of people went to Boston last week to cast their votes for the English World of the Year at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting.

And the 2012 Word of the Year is … hashtag. That’s right, the written out version of this symbol #. Twitter users will recognize that as the symbol put before a word to make searching posts for that word easier, like: #ESL. This usage started in 2007. In 2012, its popularity apparently exploded. Says Ben Zimmer of the American Dialect Society:

“This was the year when the hashtag became a ubiquitous phenomenon in online talk. In the Twittersphere and elsewhere, hashtags have created instant social trends, spreading bite-sized viral messages on topics ranging from politics to pop culture.”

Thus, the little hashtag got cast into the spotlight. It got its fifteen minutes of fame as we say in English when talking about something or someone that gets a lot of media publicity (often for a short period of time — hence the reference to “fifteen minutes”).

Many people thought the expression “fiscal cliff” would win the Word of the Year (threat of spending cuts and tax increases hanging over the end-of-year budget negotiations). We certainly heard a lot about that from the media!

In addition to the word of the year prize, new expressions and words can win in a variety of other categories. In the most creative category, the new American English expression gate lice was one of the runners up.  Gate lice are those annoying airline passengers who rush to the gates waiting to get on board the plane. How nice to now have a simple way to describe these people. Instead of having to say, “Look at all of those silly people rushing to get on the plane when boarding hasn’t even started” we can now simply say, “Look at the gate lice!”

In the least likely to succeed category, the expression YOLO was the winner (tied for first place with phablet — which is an electronic device sized between the smartphone and the tablet). As just about any American under 30 probably knows, that is an acronym for “You only live once.” It is often used sarcastically (“Go ahead and take the last cookie, YOLO!”). It was popularized by the rapper Drake, who sang about YOLO in one of his songs. YOLO nearly also won for the category of “most useful” — clearly the expression has its supporters, despite being judged “least likely to succeed.” Perhaps it became too popular, too quickly and it’s time has already passed (in other words, maybe it’s no longer cool or trendy to use the word YOLO. I plan to keep using it for another few months, YOLO!).

Since we publish books for learning business English, we are always looking for new business English expressions. We were pleased to see the word disruptive as a runner-up in the “most euphemistic” category. Disruptive in its new sense means “destroying existing business models.” This concept was introduced into business vocabulary by Professor Clay Christensen of Harvard University (who writes a lot about disruptive innovation, meaning innovations that create new markets, as the automobile disrupting railroad transport and the GPS navigation system disrupted the navigational map).

For a complete list of all the words nominated for prizes in 2012, visit the American Dialect Society’s website.