Overview | Some Words of the Year, 2012-2016 | Reviewing the online dictionaries | Overview of lexical items in GloWbE & NOW | NOW: frequency & development of items since 2010 | antifa | blockchain | double down | gig economy | Trumpian | womxn | Overall frequencies of items in NOW | Rates of change of frequencies, 2015-16 & 2016-17 | Conclusion
These days, many dictionary publishers announce a Word of the Year (WotY), or a list of words popular in a given year, or a word or phrase they feel expresses the zeitgeist for that year. These are often announced in December, though Xmas is also advertised early these days.
In this spirit, I’ve compiled a few lists: first, a look at the WotYs of selected publishers from 2012 to 2016; and second, a number of lexical items I’ve found regularly popping up in the course of 2017 so far: antifa, blockchain, double down, gig economy, Trumpian, and womxn.
My observations of these recently popular words are direct, based on non-systematic online reading rather than computational methods, so I’m not saying these are the most popular words of 2017, or that their selection was objective, nor in fact that they are altogether new (but that’s OK), just that their regular presence has pinged the lexicographic radar.
The jury is still out on whether WotY campaigns are a useful exercise beyond generating publicity for the companies that make the announcement – of the wholly new words, only some actually make it into the dictionaries, and even then their longevity is not given.
The high-speed churn of the age of Twitter, disposable soundbites, and endless chyrons of breaking stories throws up wholly or partially new linguistic forms, or may bring already established items to the fore for a certain period, but can then just as easily again drop them in the abyss. Others may undergo shifts of meaning so that dictionaries perennially behind the times.
In the rest of this post, first, I list and discuss words of the year for the last 5 years as publicised by Oxford Dictionaries, Collins English Dictionary, the American Dialect Society, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, dictionary.com, the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and Macquarie Dictionary to give some kind of context to what follows. The WotYs are not necessarily newly coined words, they might have been around for a while, but their popularity will have spiked in the year in question, and the publisher may claim their choice represents the ethos of this particular trip around the sun.
Then, my database reveals a number of items that are both broadly ‘new’ and have been highly prevalent in the course of the year so far. Some come up a lot. Examination of six words and phrases – antifa, blockchain, double down, gig economy, Trumpian, and womxn – makes up the bulk of this post.
I look at whether, and if so, how these items occur in a number of online dictionaries, and then head to Brigham Young University’s GloWbE and NOW corpora to see how they perform there.
I compare the items’ GloWbE (2012-2013) frequencies to their NOW (2010-present) frequencies to get a handle on what has changed in the last 4 years, and note some compounds and derivatives (e.g. blockchaining, womxnhood), before focusing on the 5.22 billion-word NOW corpus to detail the extent to which they’ve become incredibly more popular in the last year or so.
Some Words of the Year, 2012-2016
Table 1 below presents recent words of the year from a selection of British, US, and Australian dictionary publishers and language-study bodies. I’ve only included sources where I could find a (mostly) full set of items for the last 5 years.
Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 WotY is of course the Face with Tears of Joy emoji.
From one angle, it is noticeable that some of the new items (red) have become extremely common in the everyday world, others not so much, and yet others may possibly be regionalisms.
From another angle, it is noticeable that, we can delineate roughly two types of words occurring here: generalisms (Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com) and relatively new items, i.e. most of the rest of the words. It is more likely the generalisms (blue) that have it claimed for them that they represent what the year was about.
In addition to the WotYs in the table above, Cambridge English Dictionary announced paranoid last year, and austerity the year before last. Similarly, the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) has already pronounced state capture the South African Word of the Year for 2017.
PanSALB also names the two other words that were shortlisted for its WotY – blesser and white monopoly capital. Blesser is the only one that is South African English (and so the Dictionary Unit for South African English has no mandate to research the others), though it was trending last year already.
The newer terms have caught the attention of lexicographers because their frequencies are spiking, and exactly because they look and act a little different. Though their roots are usually clear, they are often new coinages that articulate new meanings.
Reviewing the online dictionaries – antifa, blockchain, double down, gig economy, Trumpian, womxn
The online dictionaries consulted are Oxford Dictionaries, Collins English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and dictionary.com. Oxford and Collins, at least, are based on larger lexicographic datasets that are not available from these sites. Table 2 below shows the information available on the six items at the four dictionary sites.
Oxford Dictionaries has entries for most of the words, while the others provide less or no information (this may be a reflection on the varying update statuses of the dictionaries). Viewed together, the entries present a bigger picture for certain items, e.g. Merriam-Webster’s 1949 dating for double down, and dictionary.com’s 2005 reference for gig economy. Both antifa and double down have histories that date from the mid-20th century. The phrases double down and gig economy are the best represented, antifa and blockchain less so, and Trumpian and womxn not at all.
Next, I look at the items in Brigham Young University’s GloWbE and NOW corpora.
Overview of the lexical items in the GloWbE and NOW corpora
The lexical material of the 1.9 billion-word GloWbE corpus contains web-based texts from Englishes around the world. It was collected in 2012 and 2013, and the corpus itself dropped in 2013. That in the 5.22 billion-word NOW dates from 2010 until “yesterday”; data collection is ongoing. The former could be thought of a picture of the state of play in 2013, while the latter mostly depicts developments since then.
The growing size of NOW (it is currently nearly three times larger than GloWbE), as well as the increase in the number of sites from which it sources material, contribute in part to the greater figures in NOW in Table 3, below. However, they conceivably do not directly explain the massive increases in frequency and prevalence of the words and phrases indicated by the orange (more) and red (most) blocks.
(Here and below, * indicates that the item is treated as a lemma and represents both the singular root word, and its plural and other forms.)
The most conspicuous information available here is, first, the thousand-fold increase in the prevalence of BLOCKCHAIN. People are talking about it, this says, much more than in 2013, when it barely had a foothold in GloWbE (or NOW, for that matter); today, it occurs as a variety of forms and compounds (the figures exclude 156 instances of blockchain in user-, website and business names). Second, WOMXN is the only one that doesn’t occur in GloWbE. Though its presence in NOW is small, it is also producing derivations.
In NOW, the other words are at least six times less frequent than BLOCKCHAIN, and at least around five times more frequent than WOMXN; otherwise, only GIG ECONOMY and TRUMPIAN are more than 100 times more prevalent in NOW than in GloWbE, with ANTIFA more than 10 times so.
NOW: frequency and development of items since 2010
The graphs below show the frequency of each item in the NOW corpus for every 6 months since 2010. Thus, the two right-most columns together indicate the frequency for 2017 so far. Note that the left-side scales of measurement differ per graph.
The text below the graph presents information available on each item from dictionaries and from analysis of NOW. This may include a definition, the date of earliest occurrence so far, the major forms of each of the lemmas, their linguistic development, as well as the percentage of the total occurrence of each item in NOW constituted by its 2016 and 2017 instances combined (i.e. how its frequency has changed since two years ago), and by 2017 so far alone (i.e. since the beginning of this year).
A radical political movement that opposes fascism and other forms of extreme right-wing authoritarianism. (Oxford Dictionaries)
(Note that this source spells the word only with an initial capital (Antifa), and classifies it as a proper noun, whereas recently it is used more as a common noun.)
Since 1940s (immediately following WWII)
Occurs mostly as ANTIFA, then as ANTIFAS (19)
Shows some development of compound noun phrases: -AFFILIATED, -ALIGNED, -RALLY, -RELATED, -TYPES, -WANNABES, though these are infrequent.
Occurrences 2016-2017: 97%
Occurrences 2017: 95%
A system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network. (Oxford Dictionaries)
(Note that there is not yet any indication of the use of blockchain outside cryptocurrency transactions.)
Since early C21. It’s not in Satoshi Nakamoto’s inaugural 2008 article “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” though he does refer to “a chain of blocks” (p. 7).
It’s only in Google Books as of 2013 – see here, here, and here; its frequency in NOW rises to double figures for the first time in that year.
Occurs predominantly as BLOCKCHAIN, but also as a plural and as derivations, the latter both extensions of the word and hyphenated forms, especially as -ENABLED, -RELATED, and -POWERED (see Table 3 above).
Occurrences 2016-2017: 89%
Occurrences 2017: 53%
Strengthen one’s commitment to a particular strategy or course of action, typically one that is potentially risky. (Oxford Dictionaries)
To become more tenacious, zealous, or resolute in a position or undertaking (Merriam-Webster)
(Both publishers also list the meaning of the phrase’s origins in the card game blackjack. Double down is part of a zero-sum discourse of stake and wager.)
Occurs mostly as DOUBLE DOWN and DOUBLED DOWN, though also as DOUBLES DOWN (and as DOUBLING DOWN in GloWbE).
Occurrences 2016-2017: 65%
Occurrences 2017: 32%
A labour market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. (Oxford Dictionaries)
An economic sector consisting of part-time, temporary, and freelance jobs (dictionary.com)
Since early C21 (possibly 2005)
Almost all instances are GIG ECONOMY.
Occurrences 2016-2017: 61%
Occurrences 2017: 26%
Of, like, or associated with Donald J. Trump or his presidency of the USA.
(Likely to take on further negative connotations of rash language and behaviour in years to come.)
Occurrences 2016-2017: 98%
Occurrences 2017: 50%
Some examples of the use of womxn:
c2010 Through the eyes and words of give young womxn and one little girl, the film takes us into the thoughts and experiences of each. (Source)
2013 SEARCH uses the spelling ‘Hxstory’ for two main reasons. The first is a form of resistance to patriarchal society and to shed light on the social injustices womxn have and currently face. (Source)
2014 When I first came to Berkeley, people around me used words like “womyn” (now changed to “womxn,” the x signifying intersectionality and individual experiences within different communities). (Source)
2015 In short, the ‘y’ [in ‘womyn’] is a very white liberal way to look at feminism. It excludes womxn of color, trans-womxn, and other folks who may identity as womxn from the conversation and the movement. (Source)
2016 [They] highlight the interconnected and complex struggles of identity and belonging migrant, displaced and Queer Womxn of Color of the Diaspora experience. (Abustan & Rud, p. 17)
2017 The womxn who make love to you / and introduce you at the dinner table / like they have not been intimate with your sheets. (Putuma, p. 44, Source)
Overall frequencies of items in NOW
BLOCKCHAIN is confirmed as by far the most frequent of the six items. Part of the reason for its relatively high frequency may have to do with its common use in specialised environments – such as in financial and digital-technology circles, publications, and advertising – rather than primarily reflecting its broader use in society. The same information is given in Table 4 below, where the total number of instances per item in NOW is also indicated.
Rates of change of frequencies, 2015-2016 & 2016-2017
Yet the figures above largely hide the scale of the growth in frequency each item has experienced in the last two years. To show this factor, the graph below uses the values in the preceding table to calculate the rate of change of frequency per year. For each item, the first bar represents the change in frequency from 2015 to 2016 (2016 ÷ 2015), and the second, 2016 to 2017 (2017 ÷ 2016).
Again, while some of the increased prevalence may be attributable to the increasing size of the NOW corpus, and some of the decreased prevalence to the fact that the last 2 and a bit months of corpus data for 2017 have not yet been collected, and this may mean that each of the second bars may increase by the end of the year (so that the accelerations for BLOCKCHAIN(s), DOUBL* DOWN, and GIG ECONOMY rise to parity with the previous change), the first point does not fully explain the massive increase for ANTIFA(s) or the substantial one for WOMXN.
TRUMPIAN is only slightly more frequent than it was last year (though it was far more frequent then than in 2015). All of the items already mentioned so far show a decrease in rate of change in frequency. Only WOMXN, and more particularly ANTIFA, show considerable upward movement relative to last year – ANTIFA, the fastest year-on-year acceleration of any of the items examined here.
In conclusion, antifa is not especially frequent in the 5.22 billion-word NOW corpus. It has been in existence for 70 or more years (as Antifa) in the sense of “anti-fascist,” and it has shown extremely high growth in frequency from last year to this.
Blockchain may first occur in 2010, possibly before that, but not before 2008. It begins to be used more frequently as of 2013, and then even more so as of 2015, so that the vast majority of its use has been in the last two years, so that it is currently highly frequent in NOW. It is the most diversified of the words here, as well as the most frequent of these words in NOW, more than three times more so in total than the next, double down.
The only verb unit on the list, double down has also been around for about 70 years. Its presence in NOW in the last two years accounts for nearly two-thirds of its total presence there, and within the wordset analysed here, it is relatively frequent in NOW. Yet, its figures in 2017 are not much up on the previous year.
Gig economy has been around for more than a decade, and it may turn out to be twice as prevalent this year than it was in 2016; yet, for 2017, it is not especially frequent in NOW. Indeed, a doubling of frequency in 2017 may occur for merely technical reasons (e.g. increasing size and increasing number of sources).
Trumpian seems to have peaked last year, and its use is not growing exorbitantly. Though of recent provenance, it is not particularly frequent, either for 2017 or on the whole.
Womxn is also a recent formation, probably from this decade, and its use is likely to continue to broaden.
As for contenders for Word of the Year 2017, I’ll leave it at this: blockchain has the volume and shows no sign of slowing down; antifa has the acceleration but not the figures yet; and womxn has the novelty though even lower numbers.
The research on the lexical items in the dictionaries and corpora was conducted in late October 2017. All information based of the data was valid at the time.
Most of the information on the words of the year per year is available from the following Wikipedia pages:
Abustan, P. & Rud, A. G. (2016) “Allies of Intersectionalities” in Rodriguez, N. M., Martino, W. J., Inggrey, J. C. & Brockenbrough, E. (eds) Critical Concepts in Queer Studies and Education: An International Guide for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Putuma, K. (2017) “Twenty-one ways of leaving,” Collective Amnesia. Cape Town: uHlanga
© GQOM 2017
FILED UNDER: FIELDWORK IN ANARCHIST LEXICOGRAPHY 001