TIME Government

Government Officials May Be Using Less Mumbo Jumbo

This report card shows how well federal government agencies did in 2014, in terms of speaking plainly when communicating with the public. It was released on Jan. 27, 2015. Courtesy of the Center for Plain Language

"They just don’t write that well"

On Tuesday, the non-profit Center for Plain Language released its third annual report card for federal government agencies. Those who are following the spirit and letter of the Plain Writing Act—a 2010 law designed to eliminate bureaucratic gobbledygook—got A’s. Those who failed to abide and didn’t submit documents to be reviewed earned big fat F’s.

The bad news is that government agencies are still using words like weatherization, gasification, grantsmanship and interdependencies. The good news is that, overall, the average grade is going up, with 16 of 22 departments improving over the previous year’s grades.

That means fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Defense:

The Deputy Secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the DoD, is delegated full power and authority to act for the Secretary and to exercise the powers of the Secretary on any and all matters for which the Secretary is authorized to act.

And more sentences like this, from the Social Security Administration:

You need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and get some other government services.

As well as fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Education (note, this really is just one sentence):

Comparison teachers included those from traditional routes to certification (those who completed all requirements for certification, typically through an undergraduate or graduate program in education, before they began to teach) and teachers from less selective alternative routes to certification (programs that allowed teachers to begin to teach before completing all requirements for certification, but that were not as selective as TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs).

And more sentences like this, from the Transportation Security Administration:

Fireworks are not permitted in checked or carry-on baggage.

But the Center for Plain Language also did things a little bit differently this time around. Rather than just grading compliance (Does the agency appoint someone to oversee their plain language endeavors? Is there a way for the public to give the agency feedback about their language?), they gave each agency a grade for compliance, writing samples and information design. The latter is a web-inspired category that’s all about using typeface and white space and graphics to make complex ideas easier to digest. In that area, most agencies came away with C’s.

“They just don’t write that well,” Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the Center for Plain Language, says about government employees. “There’s a lot of feeling that if it doesn’t look complex and legal maybe it’s not legal … It’s just counter to the culture of the government, and people struggle to write plainly.” When it comes to visual elements, she says that’s not even on most agencies’ radars. They’re all text and no pictures. “It will be a while before they dig themselves out of the hole and get to the high level that some private sector companies already have,” she says.

Cheek has been lobbying for Washington, D.C., denizens to speak simply with the public for the past 20 years. And she says that despite the government’s taste for overwrought sentences, “we are finally seeing some significant progress.”

The full report card is above. Cheek says that they’ll likely be dropping the compliance grade next year, since almost every agency has figured out how to follow the letter of the law (note all the A’s). And rather than letting the agencies cherry-pick samples to submit—which forces some skepticism about how much these grades really convey—the Center’s researchers will be making their own selections. The grades for writing were determined by feeding example documents through a software program that picked out red flags like long words, needless words and passive verbs. The information design scores were determined by two people independently scoring the documents’ visual elements.

The Act itself doesn’t include a process for oversight, which is why the Center for Plain Language developed this annual process for rewarding straightforward speech and holding jargon-lovers’ feet to the fire.

TIME weather

Here’s a Closer Look at the ‘Snowmenclature’ People Are Using

Literal is so hot right now

Every great blizzard that hits the U.S. sends people running to the grocery store to stockpile canned goods and, in recent years, to their keyboards for rampant hashtagging. As snow hit the Northeast on Monday and Tuesday, social media was rife with references to the #snowicane, the #snowjam and the #snownado.

TIME partnered with Hashtracking to find out which trending hashtags were getting the most traction on Twitter, as New York residents geared up for chaos that never really hit and New Englanders battened down the hatches. The results are in: The top hashtag for tweeting about the storm is the quite literal #blizzardof2015. (You can get a closer look at the chart here.)

Chart complied by Hashtracking

But, as with many competitions, the winners aren’t as interesting as the losers. Juno, the green line above in a solid third place, is the name for the storm chosen by the Weather Channel. That cable network decided two years ago that it would start giving names to winter storms like the government does for hurricanes, a move many saw as a branding “ploy”.

The government hasn’t endorsed the Weather Channel’s names and doesn’t name winter storms itself because snowstorms are more frequent and more ambiguous than events like hurricanes. The network has said its aim is to make people more aware of such events, but it appears that people prefer to orient themselves with the more straightforward #blizzardof2015 than the more arbitrary #Juno.

That unpoetic hashtag has also trumped the long-dominant blizzard-time puns #snowmageddon and #snowpocalypse. This blizzard may mark the first time some people are hearing this duo of “portmansnows”—as Stanford University linguist Arnold Zwicky dubbed them—but they have been around for at least a decade. And they may finally have reached a point of exposure where they’re on the way out.

Ben Zimmer, executive editor at Vocabulary.com, found evidence of bloggers using this “snowmenclature” when storms hit the U.S. in 2005. But, he says, they didn’t really blow up until Twitter had taken hold in 2010. Even President Barack Obama was on board that year. “Hashtags lend themselves to this play with blended words,” Zimmer says. “And a successful blend, one people recognize and understand, is one where the parts are obvious at first glance, like snowmageddon.”

MORE: Why Blizzards Turn Us Into Irrational Hoarders at the Grocery Store

Clearly snowmageddon is a blend of the white precipitation commonly known as snow and Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil that leaves the earth in ashes—just as snowpocalypse is a blend of snow and apocalypse, a last catastrophe that marks the end of the world.

But what really makes these words irresistible (at least for a while) is the nature of the events that inspired them. As Zimmer says, “It makes you feel like you’re in a disaster movie.” And what’s the best part of a huge snowstorm or a zombie takeover that leaves 10 newly acquainted survivors huddled in a farmhouse? The same thing. There’s a suspension of the rules. You’re expected to figure things out for yourself and you get to do things you wouldn’t on any regular day. Walking right down the middle of what is usually a busy street is a thrilling little treat, whether everybody’s dead or everybody’s cars are stuck in their driveways.

Just like those survivors in the farmhouse, there is also a sudden solidarity among everyone who is having their normal lives upended. “There’s something kind of exciting and it kind of draws everybody together,” says Tom Skilling, top weather broadcaster for WGN in Chicago. “‘We’re about to go through this as a group and if we all deal with this together, we’ll get through this.’ Major weather events affect everybody, all ages, all demographic groups. And if it doesn’t happen too often, there’s a drawing together that goes on.”

That said, Skilling is not a big fan of these “gimmicky” words. He’s more of a #blizzardof2015 kind of guy. The fact that they’re so hyperbolic—clearly no one is taking a snowstorm as seriously as an apocalypse—makes them playful. And the fact that they’re playful might lead to people not taking dangerous weather events as seriously as they should, he says. “You’re dealing with an event in nature that really does have great consequence,” he says. “Sometimes we’re better off just dealing with facts.” (Then Skilling apologizes for being a killjoy.)

Here is a short selection of puns and plays on words the people are using to get themselves through this cold, dark time.

#snowku (for haikus about the storm)

(Feel free to tweet the author with other puns to add.)

TIME Drugs

Report Predicts 18 States Will Legalize Pot by 2020

Whether that pans out depends on Colorado, cash and the federal government

A new report predicts that 18 U.S. states will have legalized recreational marijuana in the next five years, a huge increase from the four states that currently have or are in the process of creating legal markets for pot.

The report, set to be released in February from ArcView Market Research, a firm that pairs investors with marijuana-related businesses, was sponsored by marijuana-industry groups and has a prolegalization tone. But their prediction is not simply self-serving optimism. The map below shows the states where ArcView’s researchers believe recreational pot shops will open their doors:

This chart appears in the executive summary of Arcview Market Research's Marijuana Markets report, 3rd Edition.
This chart appears in the executive summary of Arcview Market Research’s Marijuana Markets report, 3rd Edition.


The map has a lot of overlap with the places where the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the group that helped launch legal weed in Colorado, already has workers on the ground in preparation for legalization votes over the next two years. Yet MPP is a bit more cautious in its outlook: the group believes 12 states could join Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in allowing recreational pot by 2017. Unlike ArcView (whose executive director sits on MPP’s board), they’re not banking on legalization taking root in Montana, New Jersey or Connecticut over the next few years, according to spokesperson Morgan Fox. He says they’re concentrating current efforts in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. They see Texas — yes, Texas —as an outside possibility.

In the report, ArcView claims that “2014 will be remembered as a year when … a sense of inevitability about national legalization became conventional wisdom among elected officials and the general public.” But the issue and the mood of the electorate are far from settled. In November, Gallup released a poll showing that a majority of Americans favor legalization. But it’s a slim majority of 51%, down from 58% in 2013, with many conservatives still balking at the idea.

As with so many other political issues, the speed at which states legalize marijuana is going to be affected by the rate at which donors are willing to pour money into elections and lobbying. In 2014, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson proved that there is a Republican with deep pockets willing to spend big to fight against legalization. In Florida’s midterm election, voters considered an amendment to legalize medical marijuana, and Adelson shelled out at least $5.5 million to defeat the measure. It failed by a 2% margin, just shy of the 60% required to pass.

Meanwhile, legalization advocates have lost stalwart funders like Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance who died in 2013. By one estimate, he had spent $40 on legalization efforts since the 1980s. His allies have been scrambling to fill the funding hole left by Lewis. In Florida, the effort to legalize medical marijuana was largely bankrolled by one man, personal-injury lawyer John Morgan, who was behind about $4 million in funds. He has vowed to try again in 2016, but legalization advocates fighting for reform in other states can’t necessarily count on his support. MPP’s Mason Tvert says that while money is obviously important for their cause, “there’s no one individual who is going to be responsible for passing these measures.”

Two other factors will be key to determining if the above map proves accurate: whether the federal government continues to keep its distance from state experiments with legalization (which remain illegal under federal law), and whether states with existing legal markets encounter any major problems.

In Colorado, for example, parties are gearing up for a political fight over edibles, which have led to children who accidentally ingested them being hospitalized. One of those groups is Smart Colorado, which includes parents concerned about the pace at which marijuana laws have been liberalized. “We’re looking out for public safety and our kids,” founder Gina Carbone told TIME in an earlier interview about edibles regulations, “not just expanding this huge market.” According to the new report, legal weed yielded $2.7 billion in retail and wholesale sales in 2014.

Tvert says there’s also the possibility of an “unexpected event” that could thwart or boost their cause, like an endorsement from a major, mainstream celebrity or a high-profile incident that could set the movement back. “A big part of this is really optics,” he says.


Saks Backtracks in Transgender Discrimination Case

2014 Holiday Shopping Windows - Chicago, Illinois
Chris McKay—Getty Images

The company will no longer argue that transgender people lack legal protections

Luxury retailer Saks & Co. has dropped a controversial legal argument they put forward in December: that there’s no federal law prohibiting the company from discriminating against someone for being transgender.

Leyth Jamal, a former employee who identifies as a transgender woman, is suing Saks for discrimination in Texas. She alleges that she was mistreated by the company and ultimately fired because she is transgender. In response, Saks claimed that Title VII, the portion of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sex, doesn’t cover transgender people.

On Jan. 26, after public criticism and a legal rebuke from the Department of Justice, Saks withdrew the motion. The change was first reported by Buzzfeed. Saks will continue to contest Jamal’s suit, but will now focus on the merits of her specific claims.

MORE Does Saks Have the Right to Fire a Transgender Employee?

Saks’ original position was contrary to recent federal court rulings and the views of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice. In December 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that all lawyers in the department would be taking the position that transgender discrimination is covered as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

In the Justice Department’s motion, officials assert a “strong interest” in the outcome of the case. And their response to Saks’ initial argument is summed up concisely: “Not so.”


Why It’s a Big Deal That Obama Said ‘Transgender’

It's all about legitimacy

Every word in every State of the Union speech is vetted. And President Barack Obama’s decision to say a certain word among the 6,718 he uttered on Tuesday is reverberating through the LGBT community. That’s because Obama just became the first President to say the word transgender during such a high-profile occasion. And most advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are thrilled.

“The President’s acknowledgment helps shatter the cloak of invisibility that has plagued trans people and forced many to suffer in silence,” author and MSNBC host Janet Mock tells TIME. “By speaking our community’s name, the President pushes us all to recognize the existence and validity of trans people as Americans worthy of protection and our nation’s resources.”

“As a transgender man and an advocate for transgender people, it was thrilling to hear, for the first time in our nation’s history, the President of the United States acknowledge transgender people as an integral and valued part of our national community,” says Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

MORE One State of the Union, Two Barack Obamas

The issues of validity and legitimacy are huge ones for transgender people. Decades ago, doctors didn’t think their feelings about their gender identity were legitimate—that they were inclinations requiring correction. Today, the medical community has evolved, but many people still mistakenly assume transgender people are only really transgender if their bodies look a certain way.

Actress Laverne Cox talked about this issue during an interview with TIME for our cover story on trans issues: “We have to listen to people about who they are and not assume that there’s something wrong with trans people. Because we know who we are. And I think the biggest thing is folks want to believe that there’s something, that genitals and biology are destiny. … When you think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous. People need to be willing to let go of what they think they know about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.”

MORE Barack Obama is ready to fight

Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon, says that for decades transgender people have had to deal with the perception that they’re deceiving people. “The people who say that they’re trans have always been undermined and thought of as not telling the truth, being intentionally deceitful of others,” she says. She calls it “the authenticity issue that trans people face, not being believed for who they say they are.”

To get medical treatment or to play on sports teams or to change the gender on their driver’s licenses, transgender people have long had to provide documents and testimony that they are who they say they are. In the past, they sometimes had to prove they intended to have or had undergone surgery. And today, there are people who don’t understand what it means to be transgender or don’t “believe in being transgender,” as the sibling of a transgender boy told TIME in 2014. Constantly proving one’s status is not something that many Americans are forced to do on a daily basis. To have Obama offer up recognition using the word that the community itself uses—rather than circling the issue with a some vague phrase like “regardless of how someone identifies”—is him implying that he does believe and doesn’t need any more proof.

Here is the full context of Obama’s comment:

As Americans, we respect human dignity, even when we’re threatened, which is why I’ve prohibited torture, and worked to make sure our use of new technology like drones is properly constrained. It’s why we speak out against the deplorable anti-Semitism that has resurfaced in certain parts of the world. It’s why we continue to reject offensive stereotypes of Muslims — the vast majority of whom share our commitment to peace. That’s why we defend free speech, and advocate for political prisoners, and condemn the persecution of women, or religious minorities, or people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. We do these things not only because they’re right, but because they make us safer.

The Transgender Law Center, the largest legal advocacy organization entirely dedicated to transgender issues, lauded his comment. “President Obama’s public recognition of transgender people in his State of the Union address was historic,” executive director Masen Davis said in a statement. “While it seems like a simple thing—saying the word ‘transgender’ in a speech—President Obama’s statement represents significant progress for transgender people and the movement towards equality for all.”

Davis spoke to TIME last year about his own experience coming out as a transgender man and how much times have changed since the ’90s. “When I first came out as transgender, we all just assumed that if you were transgender, you were going to lose your family, you were going to lose your friends, you were going to lose your job. You needed to be prepared to lose everything,” he said. “We’ve come so far, that it’s become easier for transgender people in certain areas of the country to be out and for them to feel like they can come out at work and they’re not going to lose their jobs. They can come out to their family and they might not be thrown out. That they can come out at school and still be treated well.”

Still, as Davis says, transgender people are still disadvantaged as a demographic. They are more likely to experience harassment because of their gender status, to lose their jobs and live in poverty. More than 40% of transgender people, according to one report, have attempted suicide. Leelah Alcorn is a recent, tragic example of how hard it is to be a young transgender person in America.

That’s why even on this historic occasion, some transgender advocates are not sated. “I’m glad that he mentions us but to be honest it’s not nearly enough,” says Greta Martela, who recently founded Trans Lifeline. “I can’t get excited about the President simply acknowledging our existence when we are facing this kind of crisis and discrimination.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says that word was missing in “laundry lists” he reeled off during the State of the Union in previous years. Still, Keisling notes that even when Obama didn’t say the T-word or the B-word (his mention of bisexual Americans was also a first this year), he did push forward on LGBT-friendly policies. In 2014, he signed an executive order extending workplace protections to LGBT employees working for federal contractors. And his attorney general, Eric Holder, recently instructed the Department of Justice to argue that discrimination against transgender people qualifies as sex discrimination under Title VII.

“Of course, the advancement of those policies is so much more important than a mention in a speech,” Keisling says. “But make no mistake, the President of the United States condemning persecution against transgender people is pivotal … His mention of us makes us know that he meant us when he talked about Americans. When he spoke about children, he meant transgender children too.”


Does Saks Have the Legal Right to Fire a Transgender Employee?

2014 Holiday Shopping Windows - Chicago, Illinois
Chris McKay—Getty Images

Leyth Jamal claims she was mistreated and lost her job because of gender identity

A former employee of Saks & Co. is taking the luxury retail store to court in Texas, claiming that she was discriminated against for being transgender.

Leyth Jamal says she was belittled by coworkers, forced to use the men’s room and repeatedly referred to by male pronouns (he and him) before ultimately being fired. The company responded in late December with a motion for the federal court to dismiss the case. In it, Saks’ lawyers don’t spend much time on any specific claims about mistreatment, instead arguing that transgender people simply aren’t protected by federal non-discrimination laws.

Legal experts who specialize in LGBT issues disagree. While there’s no federal law protecting transgender people from discrimination, courts and government agencies have taken the position that it is illegal, especially in recent years.

The Saks team declares it is “well settled” that transgender people are not protected under Title VII, the portion of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on sex. Opening their defense, they quote from a 7th circuit ruling that says sex discrimination is not synonymous with “discrimination based on an individual’s sexual identity disorder or discontent with the sex into which they were born.” But it’s important to note that this ruling was made in 1984.

“We’ve seen a real turnaround,” says Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “Early cases from the ’70s and ’80s were negative … but starting about 10 years ago, there began to be a reversal of that.”

Ilona Turner, legal director at the Transgender Law Center, says that if anything is “well settled,” it’s the fact that transgender people should be protected under Title VII. “The trend has been very, very strong in recent years,” she says of court decisions in cases involving transgender employees and students.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency in charge of enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination against job applicants or employees, takes a similar position on the matter. “We have claimed that to discriminate against someone based on their gender identity is the same as gender stereotyping and therefore is discrimination on the basis of sex,” says EEOC spokesperson Justine Lisser.

She traces their position back to a Supreme Court case from 1989. Ann Hopkins, a management consultant, was refused a partnership at accounting firm Price Waterhouse and told that in order to make the cut, she should “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup and jewelry, have my hair styled.”

In the end, the case set a standard that making employment decisions based on gender stereotypes like that—expectations about how a man or woman should look or behave—amounts to sex discrimination. Turner argues that discrimination against a transgender person “is always related to the perception that they’re going against sex stereotypes.”

In 2012, the EEOC made a landmark decision in a case known as Macy v. Holder. According to the complaint, a transgender woman applied for a job with a federal agency while still presenting as a man. She was qualified for the position, had a successful interview and was told she had the job as long as no problems arose during her background check. During this time, the applicant alerted the agency that she would be transitioning from male to female, and a few days later she was told that funding had dried up and the job was no longer available. Then she found out that someone else had been hired instead.

The case led the EEOC to explicitly state that discrimination based on gender identity is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. “To refuse to hire her because she was a man who had transitioned to a woman was equal to saying she didn’t meet some social norm,” says Lisser. The EEOC now has two lawsuits pending against private companies who allegedly discriminated against workers for being transgender, under the same interpretation of the law.

In December 2014, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the entire Department of Justice would also be taking the position in litigation that Title VII protects people from discrimination based on their transgender status. “This important shift will ensure that the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are extended to those who suffer discrimination based on gender identity,” Holder said. “And it reaffirms the Justice Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

The announcement underscored just how quickly things are changing: Holder was the namesake in the Macy v. Holder case, because she had applied for a job with a bureau in the Department of Justice.

Still, the Saks’ case could go either way. Courts have ruled in conflicting ways on the issue, and despite Americans’ common belief that there is a federal law barring discrimination against LGBT people, no such statute exists. While 18 states have non-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity (and three more cover just sexual orientation), Texas is not one of them. Consider same-sex marriage as a comparison: just because courts have been ruling in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, that doesn’t mean couples can get married in states where rulings on the issue are still pending.

“It is still not a settled question of law for the entire country and it won’t be settled until the Supreme Court addresses the issue,” says Minter. “There’s no way to secure certain and stable protections that can’t be undone except by states and the federal government enacting legislation.” In late 2014, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley announced that he would be proposing a comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination bill in the spring, though its chances are slim in the Republican-controlled House or Senate.

Opponents of local or state-level non-discrimination bills that include gender identity often make the arguments that the specific protections are unnecessary, because legal precedents already protect transgender people and because so many corporations have their own non-discrimination policies in place.

However it shakes out, the Saks case is ammo for critics of those arguments. Despite billing itself as “inclusive to the LGBT community,” Saks’ lawyers are arguing that “employment handbooks are not contracts.” On Jan. 8, the Human Rights Campaign meanwhile suspended the company from their Corporate Equality Index, a ranking of LGBT-friendly workplace policies that Saks had scored high on in the past.

Jamal’s claims about the poor way she was treated, on top of her team’s legal arguments, will have to be tested in court. If the court rules against her, agreeing with Saks’ lawyers about Title VII, it may actually bolster politicians like Merkley who are trying to make such lawsuits moot by passing non-discrimination laws. “I just wanted to do my job,” Jamal has said, “but I was met with resistance at every step of the way.”


#blacklivesmatter Is the American Dialect Society’s 2014 Word of the Year

Black Lives Matter Protest Disrupts Holiday Shoppers At Mall Of America
Thousands of protesters from the group "Black Lives Matter" disrupt holiday shoppers on Dec. 20, 2014 at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. Adam Bettcher—Getty Images

By an overwhelming majority

The members of the American Dialect Society invented the word of the year. These academics and linguists have been choosing one since 1990, which means Jan. 9 marked their 25th exercise of this ritual. While outfits like Oxford may get more attention for their annual picks these days (though they’ve been selecting since just 2004), the stalwarts of the Society like to claim that they were the first to choose a “WOTY” and they’re still the last, because they wait until the year is actually over to make their decision.

Among 2014 selections, this last pick proved to be the most creative, and the most intentional. After Oxford chose vape, Dictionary.com chose exposure and Merriam-Webster selected culture, 196 of those gathered at the Society’s annual meeting in Portland, Ore., raised their hands for #blacklivesmatter. The next most popular nominee got 11 votes.

Choosing a hashtag as a “word” of the year is sure to drive some traditional types to snap their bifocals in half. Some still furrow their brows at the mere idea of selecting a phrase as a “word” of the year (“because technically a phrase is not a word,” etc.). Linguistically, that makes the Society’s pick the edgiest of the bunch.

“By traditional standards, a hashtag that combines three words would not be considered a word,” Ben Zimmer, the chair of the New Words Committee who presided over the meeting, told TIME. “But clearly the membership feels that it’s a time to recognize that hashtags are an innovative linguistic form that deserve our attention.”

Yet that’s not what drove the voters. The room where the vote was held was standing room only, with graduate students piled 10 rows deep at the back. People sat on air-conditioning vents and on the floor. And for each round of voting, anyone present was invited to say a brief piece in support or against a nominee.

Indiana State University’s Leslie Barratt was the one who nominated #blacklivesmatter. “It’s one of the most important issues in our country this year, and every year,” she said.

Another speaker said that this was the one time of year when the average media consumer might pay any attention to what a room full of phoneme-loving linguists cared about. She, too, backed the hashtag for its sentiment, saying, “Here’s our moment to say what we want to say to the world outside of this meeting.”

Though she didn’t make the official nomination, Sonja Lanehart, a linguistics professor at the University of Texas—San Antonio, was really behind the charge. She has been coming to the Society’s meetings since she was an undergraduate.

“It was mostly old white men. I was an anomaly,” says Lanehart, who is black. “To go from being an anomaly to saying this is important and we need to vote for it, and people stood up and did it …” She trailed off. People congratulated her (“You represent”) and thanked her (“I wish I had said something”) as they walked out of the room.

“It’s important to realize that black lives do matter,” Lanehart told TIME. “We’ve been here. We’re going to still be here. You can’t just treat us like we don’t matter.”

The vote for the Word of the Year fell at the end of the meeting, after less prestigious categories such as “Most Useful” and “Least Likely to Succeed.” No other nominee for any category had the kind of support that #blacklivesmatter did.

In fact, a highlight of the meeting was a rumble between the under-30 and over-3o crowds over whether budtender or basic was “Most Likely to Succeed.” Both had been re-nominated after losing in other categories. (For reasons unexplained, the older crowd was very pro-budtender.) But their raucous split—which involved chants of “BAS-IC! BAS-IC!”— paved the way for an insurgent third part to win the category: salty, meaning “exceptionally bitter, angry or upset.”

For every vote, there were arguments about the nominees. Were they really new in 2014? (Eligible words are required to be “new-ish” or have taken on new meaning that year, like occupy did in 2011.) Were they clever or ridiculous? Was the hashtag #notallmen really a rally cry to eradicate tall men, as one very tall man suggested?

Perhaps the second-most-agreed-upon sentiment was that the word platisher is terrible. One of the moderators cheekily, silently typed messages on a screen at the front of the room as the nominees were discussed. “UGLIEST WORD OF 2014,” he wrote by platisher, a blend of publisher and platform. “PEOPLE VOMITED. THE STREETS WERE SLICK.”

After the final vote, the claps were loud. Here are the nominees and winners from all of the categories.


budtender: a person who specializes in serving marijuana to consumers, especially in legal dispensaries
Ebola: deadly virus that, in 2014, had a huge outbreak in West Africa that killed thousands
**even: v. to deal with or reconcile difficult situations or emotions (from “I can’t even”)
robocar: a self-driving car
unbothered: not annoyed or distracted


**columbusing: cultural appropriation, especially the act of a white person claiming to discover things already known to minority cultures
manspreading: of a man, to sit with one’s legs wide on public transit in a way that blocks other seats
misogynoir: misogyny directed toward black women
narcissistick (or narcisstick): pejorative term for a selfie stick


**baeless: without a romantic partner
basic: plain, socially awkward, unattractive, uninteresting, ignorant, pathetic, uncool, etc.
lumbersexual: fashionably rugged man who adopts the stereotypical dress and facial hair of a lumberjack
narcissistick (or narcisstick): pejorative term for a selfie stick


God view: display mode used by ride-sharing service Uber providing employees with real-time information on all users
**second-amendment: v. to kill (someone) with a gun, used ironically by gun control supporters
sugar-dating: pay-to-play relationship between an older, wealthier person (sugar daddy/ momma) and a younger partner (sugar baby)


bye, Felicia: a dismissive farewell to someone deemed unimportant
conscious uncoupling: a divorce or romantic separation by polite mutual agreement
**EIT: abbreviation for the already euphemistic “enhanced interrogation technique”
thirsty: so hungry for a romantic partner as to appear desperate


basic: plain, socially awkward, unattractive, uninteresting, ignorant, pathetic, uncool, etc.
budtender: a person who specializes in serving marijuana to consumers, especially in legal dispensaries
casual: a new or inexperienced person, especially a gamer (also in filthy casual)
plastiglomerate: type of stone made of melted plastic, beach sediment, and organic debris
**salty: exceptionally bitter, angry, or upset
selfie stick: a pole to which a smartphone is attached to take selfies from a distance


normcore: “anti-fashion” trend of adopting an intentionally ordinary, inexpensive personal style from cheap off-the-shelf brands
pairage: term proposed by Utah legislator Kraig Powell to refer to same-sex marriages
**platisher: online media publisher that also serves as a platform for creating content

MOST NOTABLE HASHTAG (new category this year)

**#blacklivesmatter: protest over blacks killed at the hands of police (esp. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island)
#icantbreathe: final words of Eric Garner, turned into rallying cry against police violence
#notallmen: response by men to discussions of sexual abuse, sexism, or misogyny that they see as portraying all men as perpetrators (countered by #yesallwomen, used by women sharing stories of bias, harrassment, or abuse)
#whyistayed: explanation by women about staying in abusive domestic relationships


bae: a romantic partner
**#blacklivesmatter: protest over blacks killed at the hands of police (esp. Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island)
columbusing: cultural appropriation, especially the act of a white person claiming to discover things already known to minority cultures
even: v. to deal with or reconcile difficult situations or emotions (from “I can’t even”)
manspreading: of a man, to sit with one’s legs wide on public transit in a way that blocks other seats

TIME language

‘Ferguson’ Is 2014’s Name of the Year

Snow covers a yard sign placed outside a home near the police station on Nov. 16, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Snow covers a yard sign placed outside a home near the police station on Nov. 16, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson—Getty Images

Beating out Uber, Malala and a princess from Frozen

In the basement of a Portland hotel Friday, a room full of members of the American Name Society gathered for their big annual event: voting on the name of the year for 2014. They nominated and spoke for and against the names of people, places and things that mattered last year before a decisive vote. By a 15-vote margin over the other finalists, “Ferguson” became their name of the year.

Ferguson, of course, is the name the St. Louis suburb where a police officer shot and killed teenager Michael Brown last year, setting off weeks of racially charged unrest around the country. Others also spoke up in favor of the eventual winner. “We can use our voice for social good and also for a movement that has some political weight to it,” said one member.

Iman Laversuch Nick, the incoming president of the society, gave a short speech in support of Ferguson right before the vote. “It’s the amount of power that it evokes,” she said. “It’s a name like Columbine. This name will always have that meaning. … Ferguson is going to take that kind of place historically where we will immediately have those associations, and I think it’s incredible that a name can do that.”

The town beat out Uber (the car service), Malala (the Nobel Peace Prize winner) and Elsa (the Disney princess of Frozen fame) in the final round of voting. Each of the four were winners in their own respective categories: place names, trade names, personal names and fictional names. About 30 people cast their votes by a raise of hands.

The American Name Society is the oldest and largest society dedicated to the investigation of names and how they develop. Laversuch Nick, a New Yorker who teaches at the University of Cologne, is passionate about how much power names have and how much they say about the people who use them. “It starts with the fact that everything that’s significant to us gets a name,” she says.

She reels off examples. The identity crises people have in naming their first-born child; the arguments people have over who can call themselves a Native-American or whether black is preferable to African-American; why some products have names that resonate with consumers and inspire copycatting across industries (See: the iPod); the life-and-death power of names written on Schindler’s List; genocidal killers in Africa targeting victims with certain tribal names; the act of taking away a prisoner’s name and giving him a number; a woman’s decision about whether to keep or drop her last name when she marries; the fact that tampons are euphemized on aisle guides as “feminine hygiene” products; the unclear reason that it’s hard to imagine a lumbersexual named Herbert.

Because of her first name, one used among Muslim people, Laversuch Nick has had to deal with being constantly flagged going through customs post-9/11. “People aren’t aware how much these names mean to them,” she says. Though among the people gathered for the vote, Ferguson was an obvious exception.

“I don’t think anyone in here had heard it before,” said another member right before votes were cast. “It’s this innocuous place that suddenly is a major city in the world’s perspective. I don’t think anybody will ever forget about Ferguson.”

TIME Drugs

Meet the Man Behind Oregon’s New Legal Pot Market

Rob Patridge is chair of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the body that will oversee the creation of Oregon's market for recreational marijuana. Michael Schoenholtz

'We’ve been fortunate that we weren’t the pioneers'

When Oregon voters approved Measure 91 in the midterm elections, they became the latest to say that marijuana should be taxed and regulated like alcohol. Now comes the enormous job of actually bringing the legal marijuana market to life.

The task falls to Rob Patridge, the chair of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, and its four volunteer commissioners. The group will be busy ahead of the Jan. 5, 2016 deadline for accepting applications from Oregonians who want to grow, process and sell marijuana. TIME spoke to Patridge, a former Republican state lawmaker and the current district attorney of Klamath County — proud home of Crater Lake — about his thoughts on edibles, when the market will realistically open and whether lawsuits like this one are a threat to the commission’s work.

What is your general philosophy for developing Oregon’s pot market?

We’re going out in late January and doing what we’re calling a listening tour. We’re going to go throughout Oregon to talk to the communities, local government, law enforcement, educators, the treatment community, the people who are invested in growing marijuana and selling marijuana. We’re going to listen to the impacts it’s going to have on the community and try to define how we’re going to move forward to address that as we put together the rules.

What issues do you expect to come up on this listening tour?

There’s been a lot of interest in stuff that the legislature may or may not address [like possibly allowing a special election for local jurisdictions to opt out of allowing pot shops]. There are concerns related to edibles and local government is very interested in public safety issues, how it’s going to interact with criminal laws. The issues are large but we’re going to try to break them down so we can eat the elephant one bite at a time rather than trying to eat the whole thing.

Edibles are proving to be controversial. People are concerned about kids accidentally ingesting them, wondering whether certain types should be banned. What are your thoughts about how to approach the issue?

The concern has certainly been raised, and we’re going to be proceeding with caution. I know there’s some legislative interest related to edibles. The legislature could mandate types. So the jury’s going to be out for a while … We’re watching what Colorado and Washington are doing. We’ve been in direct contact with the other states. We’ve reached out to Alaska. And we’re going to take some of our commissioners and staff there to talk about implementation. I’m not one to not learn from other people’s lessons.

At this point, do you think there are certain types of edibles that shouldn’t be on the market?

I don’t know that [certain types] should or shouldn’t be on the market. It’s about how they’re used and what’s responsible from a packaging standpoint, how they get labeled, those types of things.

In general, how is the situation going to be different in Oregon than in Washington or Colorado?

First, we’re not starting from zero. We already have a system in place for medical. We also have the benefit of seeing what’s gone on in Washington and Colorado, which they didn’t. We’re not plying new ground. The Colorado model is probably a better fit, because of how their medical marijuana is regulated. It’s similar to what we do. We’ve been fortunate that we weren’t the pioneers, even if we are the Pioneer State. We’re fortunate to gain from their knowledge, and they’ve been very free about sharing it.

What is your timeline for when legal shops will open their doors and the state will start collecting tax revenue?

We’re really on a fairly tight timeline. What I’m calling the “home grow provisions” [personal cannabis growing and possession becoming legal] come into effect July 1, 2015. Beyond that, we’ve got a whole set of rules we’ve got to deal with. We’ve got to set up a whole seed-to-sale system. And if the legislature changes the playing field, we’re going to be continually looking at that. Best case scenario, last half of 2016 before we’d be up and running. We’re trying to be very up front. A lot of people thought that in January 2016 these retail locations would pop up and people would go purchase marijuana. And that’s just not going to be the case.

The attorneys general in Oklahoma and Nebraska are suing Colorado over marijuana legalization, saying it violates the Supremacy Clause. How does that shape your thoughts about the nature of the market you’re setting up?

There’s the potential for a lot of legal challenges for Measure 91. Until it’s declared one way or another, we have to stay with what current law is. Our job under current law is to implement, and the court can do what it may. If it’s looks like it’s a substantial enough issue—if a judge issues a stay or something else happens—obviously we would work with the legislature to decide whether we should continue to spend the state’s money, of if they’d want us to wait until there was a legal resolution.

Is legal pot good for Oregon?

It’s my job to implement it as the chair of the commission. Voters made that decision. And as I’ve told everybody, I try to be a consensus builder. That’s my job, to create a process that’s transparent, that engages everybody. That’s really our role, and I’m not taking a policy position as the chair. Certainly there are arguments on all sides. It’s so early.

TIME language

This Is What ‘Cisgender’ Means

Two babies looking at each other curiously
Vladimir Godnik—Getty Images

This adjective had its biggest year yet in 2014

Cisgender is a word that applies to the vast majority of people, describing a person who is not transgender. If a doctor announces, “It’s a girl!” in the delivery room based on the child’s body and that baby grows up to identify as a woman, that person is cisgender. Similarly, a baby designated male in the delivery room who grows up to identify as a man is cisgender. This is the case for about 99% of the population, at least according to the best available statistics.

The word exists to serve as an equal to transgender. Author Julia Serano says the best parallel is to homosexual and heterosexual. “There was a time when there were homosexual people and everyone else was considered to be the ‘normal’ people,” she says. “Now people think of themselves as straight or heterosexual.” That adjective probably applies to about 95% of the population, though people perceive the heterosexual population as being much smaller.

The prefix cis- is Latin meaning “on this side of,” whereas trans- means “on the other side of.” While trans-atlantic means “on the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean,” an American could describe New York or Virginia or the Rocky Mountains as cis-atlantic. In general, there aren’t too many places outside of a dictionary or chemistry lab where one would likely see the prefix being used, but cisgender is seeing an uptick in use.

(MORE: This Is What Intersex Means)

In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries—the branch of Oxford that deals with modern usage, words we’re using now and how we use them—added cisgender to their ranks. Stephen Colbert joked in June that he is “cis-white,” because “I’ve always been comfortable with my birth race.” And in February, Facebook added no less than 10 “cis” terms among their expanded options for gender, ranging from plain cis to cis male to cis woman. This graph from Google Trends shows how often people have searched for the term over time:

People who use the word to describe themselves are often sending two messages: A) I’m hip to gender politics and B) I believe people are all the same when it comes to being normal and legitimate, even if their experience of gender identity is different. But there is no consensus on who should use the term or when. Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, believes that trying to introduce the word cisgender into more vocabularies when many people still don’t really understand transgender is counterproductive for their cause. “It does not help us as advocates,” she says, “changing the language.”

Other leaders in the trans community, like Serano, feel the word is useful in spreading the idea that even if the vast majority of people are not transgender, they too have a gender identity; it’s just not one that is challenged or questioned. No one should have to identify themselves as cisgender all the time, just as “people don’t go around all the time thinking of themselves as a straight woman or a heterosexual man,” she says. “But it becomes useful when you’re talking about the ways in which people are treated differently in society.”

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