TIME language

Words of the Year: How the Pithy Tradition Began

Student Using Dictionary
A spelling bee champion looks up a word in the dictionary in Detroit on April 30, 1963 Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Oxford has announced 'vape' as their 2014 pick, continuing a tradition that's a quarter-century old

In the summer of 1990, as President George Bush was grappling with going to war in the Persian Gulf and Nelson Mandela was traveling the U.S. seeking support for the end of apartheid, a man named Allan Metcalf had an idea.

A professor of English at MacMurry College in Illinois, Metcalf has also been executive secretary of the American Dialect Society for more than 30 years. Because his duties include planning the annual get together for the word-obsessed academics who make up the Society’s membership, Metcalf was busy arranging logistics for that year’s meeting in Chicago.

The attendees are types who religiously scour everything from periodicals to the banter of their college students for neologisms, shifts in slang, new concepts or funny portmanteaus — linguistic changes that almost always reflect something bigger than themselves. Language is a mirror, Metcalf thought, so why not make something of a moment when all those people, who have been staring in the mirror all year, are in the same room?

“I was thinking, every year TIME Magazine chooses a person of the year, and they choose it not by some computer program but rather the editors and readers making suggestions about who was influential. Why couldn’t we choose a word of the year?” Metcalf says. “If anybody’s expert on what’s important in our language, that would be members of our group.”

The members of that group agreed and on Dec. 19, 1990, at the Barclay Hotel in Chicago, history was made. On that day, about 40 people selected bushlips as the New Word of The Year (a portmanteau of Bush and lips, the word was a little-known term for insincere political rhetoric, created to deride Bush’s failed promise, “Read my lips: no new taxes”). Of course, Metcalf was not necessarily the first human to ponder the notion of declaring a word of the year; a TIME reader wrote a letter back in 1945 suggesting that atomic hold that title. But today’s annual foam party for word-nerds, which has institutions throwing out selections from October through January, has roots in the St. Clair Room of the Barclay Hotel.

For the first decade or so, Metcalf says, the “WOTY” ritual—an acronym used by the growing band of linguists who watch for candidates like Ahab for white flukes—was fairly small affair. That started changing when the American Dialect Society joined their meeting with the Linguistic Society of America’s in 2000, and again in 2003 when Merriam-Webster proclaimed its first WOTY to be democracy. Oxford University Press joined the parade in 2004, announcing that chav (a pejorative name for type of British youth) was their Word of the Year. Then, in 2010, Dictionary.com entered their own float with the simple, politically charged word change. Institutions with lower Q scores make the march too, like Collins English Dictionary (which chose photobomb as their word this year) and Chambers Dictionary (which selected overshare).

As close readers may have noticed, the ritual has not only exploded but also shed a tricky qualification since its inception in 1990. In the beginning, the American Dialect Society decreed that any nominee had to be new. That rule proved flawed over the years, as attendees would pluck a new word from the masses only to find out it wasn’t actually new at all (Not!, 1992′s selection, was eventually dated back to the 1800s) or that, like bushlips, the term was a passing thing that should have been wrapped in the next day’s newspaper rather than put on a pedestal.

By the 1990s, that rule had been dropped, freeing the Society’s members to select words like mom in 1996 (as a nod to the “soccer mom” voter who emerged as a key demographic in that year’s election) and occupy in 2011, recording a year in which a movement against classism took to the streets around the world. It also led to Metcalf penning a book, Predicting New Words, in which is presented his “FUDGE” system for identifying words with staying power.

Institutions have found ways to distinguish their selections amidst the delightful frenzy. Merriam-Webster relies largely on spikes in lookups, rather than making editorial choices, which is why they often end up choosing less-trendy words like last year’s science—a word, as Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski said, “lurking behind” big headlines. The people at Oxford University Press, which is monitoring English from South Texas to South Africa, position themselves as thinking more internationally and have often selected one WOTY for the U.S. and another for the U.K., like 2012′s GIF and omnishambles. And Dictionary.com, while taking lookups into account, looks to the news stories of the year and searches for a term that can serve as connective tissue.

Then there remains the American Dialect Society, which exists to study the English of North America—the only outlet to have a public, live vote that will count the hands of anyone who shows up (not just members of the Society), which now entails funneling hundreds into a room where people make nominations and give speeches for or against candidates. It’s a real good time, Metcalf says, which is just what he hoped for in the summer of 1990. “The main thing was I thought it would be fun,” he says. And now, he notes, since their vote happens in January, they’re typically the last to make their choice. “We like to think that we were first and we are the last,” he says.

For every institution, there’s an element of free publicity, sought or not, that comes with announcing a word of the year, a line that will hook reporters (this writer included) every single time. But that’s not just because WOTYs are clickbait. It’s a moment, as Oxford’s Casper Grathwohl says, to remind people that lexicographers are working hard, all year long, to catalog the immense historical record that is our language. And words of the year are a little bit of poetry that come out of a pithy tradition of reflection, regardless of whether, when we have the benefit of hindsight, the selections prove to have bottled up the zeitgeist of a year or mostly hot air.

“There are a lot of windows into thinking about where we are as a society,” Grathwohl says. “Coded in the language we use is a lot of information that we are communicating without directly saying it … When we select the word of the year, it allows people to dig underneath the surface of the words we use to think about what’s there.”

Read about Oxford’s 2014 Word of the Year: Vape

TIME society

Oxford’s 2014 Word of the Year Is Vape

Dictionary
Getty Images

Oxford's editorial staff says the word is tied to this year's big debates about health and society

Oxford’s lexicographers keep watch over billions of words every month—from literary novels to academic journals to blogs—and at the end of the year they put their brainy heads together to select a single word that best embodies the zeitgeist. Out of this year’s haze of nominees and debate emerged four little letters.

VAPE GRAPHOxford’s word of the year for 2014 is vape.

Vape, a verb meaning to inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device, beat out everything from bae to normcore. It was coined in the late 1980s when companies like RJR Nabisco were experimenting with the first “smokeless” cigarettes. But, after years of languishing, the word is back, needed to distinguish a growing new habit from old-fashioned smoking. According to Oxford’s calculations, usage of vape, which as a noun can refer to an e-cigarette or similar device, more than doubled between 2013 and 2014.

“It’s hard to anticipate what’s going to capture the public imagination at any given moment,” Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford’s dictionaries division, tells TIME. “Vape only really caught on a few years ago and now we’ve seen a dramatic rise.”

But, he notes, Oxford doesn’t choose a word of the year simply based on how much ink has been spilt writing it. “A word is just the surface of something that often has a really complex and rich life underneath,” he says.

On the surface, vape’s selection captures the exploding popularity of e-cigarettes—which, effectively invented in 2003, are suddenly close to a $2 billion market. It also memorializes this year’s historic opening of legal marijuana shops, where residents in Colorado and Washington state can buy vape pens (devices that vaporize liquids containing nicotine or cannabis into forms users can inhale) for about $60.

Deeper, Grathwohl says, the word has ties to our preoccupations with freedom and health and legislation. “Vape has been a lightning rod for a lot of discussion about the positions we want to take as a society,” he says. How great of a health problem are (e-)cigarettes and what place do they have in our culture? What should be kept out of public spaces? What should be regulated by the government? The word vape could find itself in answers to all those questions (like the ones Eliza Gray tackled in a TIME story this September, “The Future of Smoking”).

The word’s rise also carries an undertone of technological advancement: vape has had an opportunity to become popular because a device that seemed futuristic when the word was coined is now in the average corner shop. With the invention of vapor culture has come a whole lexicon, Grathwohl says: vaper, vapoholic, vaporium, carto, e-juice. Vaping has even forced society to throw the word tobacco in front of traditional cigarettes, a clarification that would have seemed silly and redundant a few years ago.

Oxford’s 2014 selection was on another level a balancing act, countering the cuteness of their word of the year in 2013: selfie. Though last year’s selection went viral—and proclaiming words of the year is partly an exercise in getting free publicity—Grathwohl says they felt the selection needed to be a little more serious this year. That is, perhaps, why some of these words made their short list but did not rise to the top:

bae (n., slang): a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner, likely a shortening of baby or babe, though some theorize that it is an acronym for “before anyone else.” The word can also be used as an adjective to describe something good or cool.

budtender (n.): someone who works at a medical marijuana dispensary or retail marijuana shop.

contactless (adj.): describing technologies that allow a smart card, etc., to connect wirelessly to an electronic reader, typically in order to make a payment.

indyref (n., slang): an abbreviated form of Scotland’s failed referendum to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

normcore (n.): a fashion movement in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate statement.

slacktivist (n.): one who engages in digital activism on the Web which is regarded as requiring little time or involvement. Also slacktivism.

Oxford’s selection is the first of many big ones to come before 2014’s word-anointing season ends in early January.

Read next: Words of the Year: How the Pithy Tradition Began

TIME Dating

OkCupid Rolling Out New Gender and Sexual Orientation Options

OkCupid manipulierte Nutzer
Maja Hitij—dpa/AP

The new feature isn't yet available to all users

Dating site OkCupid is granting select users additional options for listing gender identity and sexual orientation in their profiles.

“You’re part of a select group with access to this feature,” reads a message some users have reported seeing, according to pop culture site NewNowNext. “Keep in mind as we continue to work on this feature: For now, editing your gender and orientation is only supported on the desktop site.”

Users were previously only able to identify their genders as male or female and their sexual orientations as gay, straight or bisexual. Included in the new sexual orientation options are asexual, queer, questioning, pansexual, and sapiosexual (where intelligence is the most important factor in attraction). For gender, new options include cis men and women, transgender men and women, genderqueer, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, intersex and others.

It is unknown when these options will be available for all users.

[NewNowNext]

TIME celebrity

Best Babysitter Ever Will Save You From Taking Your Kids to an Overpriced Taylor Swift Concert

Taylor Swift Lives In Shanghai
Taylor Swift performs at the Mercedes-Benz Arena on May 30, 2014 in Shanghai, China. ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images

She will even practice a synchronized dance to 'Shake It Off' with them, so you're totally off the hook

If your kids have two ears and a heart, chances are, they’re Taylor Swift fans — and chances are, they really want to go see her in concert when she embarks on her 1989 world tour next year. You want your kids to be happy, but you also really don’t want to brave the masses of weeping tweens in red lipstick. Conundrum.

Luckily, some woman on Craigslist is here to help. She’s a 25-year-old Tay-Tay superfan and, according to her ad, she will buy your ticket from you and accompany your kid(s) to the show. She posts a list of eight reasons why you should let her do this. Those reasons include:

  • I know all the words to all her songs and can sing along with your kids, unlike you.
  • Your kids won’t have to be embarrassed of you! This is really what’s most important to your kids. They don’t have to be with someone standing there bored with ear plugs in because I will be loud and singing along with them and forcing them to have the best time ever. (JK there will be no force, we will be fast friends and they will have a GREAT time all because Taylor will be there!)
  • I have a famous dog that would love to be their newest Instagram follower.
  • Willing to be a part of a synchronized dance to Shake it Off.
  • Also completely okay with them standing there and ignoring me and pretending we aren’t together at all, and then escorting them to your car so that you can take them home.

Oh, she adds that she will provide a criminal background check and whatever other proof you need to feel fine about this arrangement. She’s only offering her services in Philadelphia, but we have a feeling she could be convinced to travel. You know, for Taylor.

Update: We had a Twitter chat with the woman who placed this ad. The famous dog she mentions is a really special pug named Oliver. Also, she confirmed that while nobody has responded to the ad, she was not joking around:

(h/t Uproxx)

TIME viral

This Couple Tricked Everyone Into Being in Their Pregnancy Announcement

They created a brilliant keepsake

Katharine and Kris Camilli wanted to tell their friends and family that Kat was pregnant, but they didn’t want to send a boring old email or post a boring old picture of an ultrasound to Facebook and wait for the comments to roll in. They wanted real life human interaction and presumably, real hugs, not just the Facebook version of them.

The couple devised a clever, but simple scheme to capture that moment. They got their friends and family together and had them pose together for pictures, but instead of saying “Cheese!” they had them say, “Kat’s pregnant!” With a little sleight of hand, the cameras were set to video instead of photo and the reactions to the announcement were all caught on film.

Kat’s sister edited the various videos together and uploaded the completed clip to YouTube as an incredible digital keepsake for the family — and a great idea for other soon-to-be parents.

[H/T Uproxx]

TIME viral

Husband Secretly Tapes Wife Breaking It Down to Salt N’ Pepa

The flow is strong with this one

If you want to sing along to Salt N’ Pepa’s “None of Your Business” in your car and bust out a few dance moves while you do it, that’s nobody’s business but your own— unless it turns out your husband is secretly taping your expert flow, and then the video goes viral.

A woman was just trying to show off her secret rap powers and enjoy a little car karaoke complete with adorable shoulder-dusting maneuver and well-choreographed hand moves, when she realizes her husband is playing Candid Camera. The look of horror on her face when she realizes her husband has been secretly taping her is one everyone can relate to. At least her husband had the good sense to title the video, “the cutest gangsta I know. My wife.”

As the video goes viral, the couple may have lost some trust in their relationship, but they gained the knowledge that the world loves a respectable Salt N’ Pepa cover.

[H/T Digg]

Read next: This Couple Tricked Everyone Into Being in Their Pregnancy Announcement

TIME celebrity

Billy Joel Defends Taylor Swift’s New York State of Mind

Taylor Swift Performs On ABC's "Good Morning America"
Taylor Swift Performs On ABC's "Good Morning America" at Times Square on October 30, 2014 in New York City. Jamie McCarthy—Getty Images

The Piano Man also gives T-Swift props for her songwriting skills

When New York City named Taylor Swift its new tourism ambassador, many residents scoffed. She’s lived here, for, like, two seconds, people (probably) said. She moved here when she was already a trillion-million-billionaire. What does she know about anything? (As we all know: haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.)

But now, proud lifelong New Yorker Billy Joel has come to Swift’s defense.

“You snoots. Let her in,” the singer told USA Today. That’s what New York is all about. I say, ‘Welcome.’”

So, that settles it. If the Piano Man himself says Tay can stay and be New York’s tourism ambassador, then she can stay. He also added: “I think she’s a talented songwriter. She catches a lot of junk, maybe because she’s so popular with young girls. But I like what she’s projecting. I respect what she’s doing.”

Also, props to Joel for using the word “snoots.” Snoots gonna snoot, snoot, snoot, snoot, snoot.

Read next: Here’s Why Mr. Big Thinks Taylor Swift’s a Perfect NYC Ambassador

TIME Music

Listen to Charli XCX’s New Party Anthem ‘Gold Coins’

The "Boom Clap" singer gets more pop-punk with this track from her upcoming album, Suckers

You probably know Charli XCX for singing the chorus on ultra-catchy hits like Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” or perhaps from her hit “Boom Clap” from the Fault in Our Stars soundtrack. But the British singer is out with a new album (called Sucker) next month and she’s slowly releasing new tracks to get everybody pumped for her new sound.

Her latest from the new album? A guitar-heavy, low-key dance track called “Gold Coins.” It’s slower, denser and more pop-punk than songs like “Boom Clap” or “Break the Rules,” but it will still make you want to dance. Probably.

TIME viral

Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson Give an Adorable 6-Year-Old Excellent Life Advice

And then he proceeds to roll on the ground

The great and powerful Neil deGrasse Tyson has some excellent life advice: When the world gives you puddles, jump in them.

When the famed astrophysicist came to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts last week, an adorable 6-year-old girl in an Einstein T-shirt asked what first graders can do to “help the world.”

And his answer is all about exploration. Jumping in puddles, banging on pots and pans — even if your mom and dad aren’t always gung ho about the whole thing.

“Tell your parents Doctor Neil deGrasse Tyson said you should jump in the puddle,” he said before doing launching into a roll on the gymnasium floor.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” he said, reading the Einstein quote off the girl’s shirt. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

(h/t: Nerdist)

TIME celebrity

Here’s the Unusual Way Donald Sutherland Landed His Role in The Hunger Games

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" - World Premiere - Red Carpet Arrivals
Donald Sutherland attends the world Ppremiere of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1" at Odeon Leicester Square on November 10, 2014 in London, England. Anthony Harvey—Getty Images

He wrote a passionate letter to the director about the script, and THEN they offered him the part

When watching a Hunger Games movie, it feels like Donald Sutherland was born to play Coriolanus Snow, the menacing president of Panem. But the film’s creators didn’t initially have him in mind for the role — and the trilogy could have turned out quite differently if he hadn’t taken the initial steps to nab the part.

“Nobody asked me to do it. I wasn’t offered it,” he says in a recent interview with GQ. “I like to read scripts, and it captured my passion.” So he decided to write a letter, which eventually made its way to director Gary Ross. After reading the script, Sutherland decided this was “an incredibly important film,” and he wanted to be part of it.

“I thought it could wake up an electorate that had been dormant since the ’70s,” he said.

Sutherland admitted that he was inspired even though he had never read the books. In fact, he didn’t know they existed at all. Still, his passion was palpable, and Ross soon offered him the role of President Snow. Boom. That should teach us all a thing or two about being aggressive and proactive and going confidently in the direction of our dreams or whatever.

Read Sutherland’s full letter over at Business Insider.

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