Ebola. Ferguson, Mo. Ray Rice. ISIS. Data breaches. Nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence. The editors and lexicographers at Dictionary.com see all these people and places that drove the news in 2014 connected through a single word: exposure, their pick for 2014’s word of the year.
In making their choice, the editors are drawing on the word’s many layers of meaning. Exposure can define the condition of being exposed to harm, in the form of a virus like Ebola or hacks that compromise consumer data. Exposure can refer to publicity, the good kind that made the ALS ice bucket challenge so successful or the bad kind that resulted in Donald Sterling selling the L.A. Clippers. Exposure can mean bringing something to light, like the details of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown or the video of Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancee in a casino elevator. It can even operate on two levels, like when private selfies that expose a naked body are exposed to the public.
“This year was full of important stories and really somber events. There was the Ebola outbreak. There was ISIS. The stakes felt really high, and we wanted to reflect that in our selection,” says Senior Editor Renae Hurlbutt. “The word circles around these two themes of visibility and vulnerability, which were at play in all of the top news stories in 2014.”
Ebola is the obvious headliner that justifies “exposure” and first drew them to the word, but the Dictionary.com editors also wanted to capture the way controversial events had, less simply, exposed attitudes and opinions about big issues like race and violence in America. “Exposure was really a catalyst for a lot of these feelings of tumult and upheaval,” Hurlbutt says.
To choose the word, the editors started scouring headlines in September, using Google Trends (which shows volumes of searches for certain words or phrases over time) and mining their own data to see which words spiked into the public consciousness. This “year end exercise,” the editors say, helps their lexicographers decide which words need to be updated and provides a pool of candidates for word of the year. But in the end, the winner that goes in the word-of-the-year envelope is an editorial choice, unlike outlets like Merriam-Webster, which bases their yet-to-be-announced “WOTY” almost exclusively on lookup statistics.
“It’s us putting a marker in the ground every year that we can eventually look back on and think about,” says Dictionary.com Director of Content Rebekah Otto. Dictionary.com got into the word-anointing game in 2010, about 20 years after the modern trend began, in part because the now 19-year-old company had recently launched a blog to bring their staff into a dialogue with the public. This selection follows change (2010), tergiversate (2011), bluster (2012) and privacy (2013).
“The calendar is a comfortable way to mark and honor the passage of time,” Otto says. “That’s a big part of why we choose a word of the year.”
Also on the editors short list were borders, disrupt, wearables and bae. Borders had roots in Ukraine. Wearables, the editors say, felt early (and might be a better candidate for 2015). Disrupt was a word they wanted to represent an array of stories but felt the associations with startup culture would eclipse everything else. And bae was a buzzword that didn’t have the weight or broadness they were looking for.
“The things that happened in 2014 and the multiple meanings behind exposure just were so in sync,” says CEO Michele Turner.
On Nov. 17, Oxford declared vape as their word of the year. And there are more yet to come. In the meantime, here’s a video Dictionary.com made to commemorate their choice.