TIME language

7 English Words You’d Never Guess Have American Indian Roots

Dictionary
Getty Images

English speakers owe Algonquian speakers many thanks

The Pilgrims had plenty of thanks to give the Wampagnog Indians in 1621, around the time they had a certain special meal you might have heard of. Members of that American Indian tribe had been essential to the early settlers’ survival, teaching them which crops to plant and how to fish.

Modern day English speakers, who are about to gorge themselves on sweet potatoes and napping this Thanksgiving, might not know that they have a smaller joy for which to give thanks: the many words that English adopted from American Indian languages (or at least may have). These are words beyond the ones you learned in elementary school like moccasins or powwow, as well as the Mayflower-sized pile of place names derived from American Indian words, including the names of about half the states. Here are some that should at the least make good conversation if you and your distant aunt run out of things to talk about over second helpings.

moose (n.): a ruminant mammal with humped shoulders, long legs, and broadly palmated antlers that is the largest existing member of the deer family.

Moose comes from the New England Algonquian word for that animal: moòs. Algonquian describes a family of about three dozens languages spoken by American Indian tribes, like Arapaho and Cree. One of the first known English-speakers to use the word moose was Captain John Smith, who recounted the creatures in his 1616 writings about the New World.

Yankee (n.): a nickname for a native or inhabitant of New England, or, more widely, of the northern States generally.

Yankee, that word the redcoats used to use to mock American doodles who thought they were fancy because of their feathery hats, is of uncertain origin. But one of the earliest theories is that the slang comes from the Cherokee word eankke, meaning slave or coward. In 1789, a British officer said Virginians used that word to describe New Englanders who sat out during war with the Cherokees.

raccoon (n.): a small North American animal with grayish-brown fur that has black fur around its eyes and black rings around its tail.

Our word for what may be the most adorable cat-sized, trash-eating creatures in America comes from a Virginia Algonquian language. In a book about animals written two years before the United States declared independence, the author noted that the raccoon was also sometimes called the “Jamaica rat, as it is found there in great abundance, playing havoc with everything.”

squash (n.): any of various fruits of plants of the gourd family widely cultivated as vegetables.

Squash is a shortened form of what the Narragansett, an Algonquian-speaking tribe from what is now Rhode Island, called that food: asquutasquash. Circa the 1600s, English-speakers used a closer (and now obsolete) derivative: squanter-squash. And they described the squanter-squash as a cake, bread and “kind of Mellon.” Though today considered a vegetable in cooking, the squash is technically a fruit, even if it seems too starch-like to be in the same family.

toboggan (n.): a long, light sled that has a curved front and that is used for sliding over snow and ice.

Early French settlers in what would later be North America took the Algonquian word for this vessel and made it tabaganne, and that became the English toboggan. The northern neighbors of the tribes who used this word, Alaska Natives like the Inuit, gave English words too, like kayak and husky.

skunk (n.): a North American animal of the weasel kind, noted for emitting a very offensive odor when attacked or killed.

As you’ve probably noticed, there is more than one animal on this list. Encountering new creatures, English speakers had no words of their own for them and so naturally adapted names from the hundreds of American Indian languages already being spoken in the country. Skunk comes from the Abenaki tribe’s name for this potent weasel: segankw.

caucus (n.): a private meeting of the leaders or representatives of a political party.

Like Yankee, the exact origin of this word is unknown. But a possible derivation is from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, meaning one who advises, urges or encourages. That word has its own roots, according to the Oxford English Dicitionary, in words meaning “to give counsel” and “to urge, promote, incite to action.” American Indian names, the OED notes, were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England.

And here is an eighth word, which you should consider a bonus feature that probably doesn’t have Indian American roots at all, though people in the past have argued that case.

OK (adj., int.): all right; satisfactory, good; well, in good health or order.

The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary do not give a definite origin of this word. They do say it “seems clear” that the heavy favorite theory (O.K. being an abbreviation of “oll korrect,” a play on “all correct”) is true. But they still list competing, underdog origin stories, including the idea that “O.K. represents an alleged Choctaw word” okii, meaning “it is.” The Choctaw may have actually used the word as a suffix to mean “despite what you are wrongly thinking,” as in, “I did too remember to turn the oven off, okii.” It’s an interesting story that would connect well with passive-aggressive uses today. But if you find yourself with free time this holiday, you might peruse the whole history written to support the prevailing theory.

TIME language

That ‘A System Cannot Fail…’ Quote? It’s Not From W.E.B. DuBois

Thank social media--and perhaps Rihanna--for the confusion

In the moments following Monday night’s announcement that there would be no indictment for Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, one line began to bubble up on social media: a system cannot fail those it was never built to protect.

The quotation, sometimes rendered as “designed to protect” or “meant to protect,” is attributed to historian and Civil Rights icon W.E.B. DuBois, and it captures the sense of futility felt by many who had hoped that Brown’s death would lead to a trial.

But, search for any variation on those words along with DuBois’ name, and you’ll come up blank. Look for a source in DuBois’ writings, and there’s nothing. Though it’s always possible that someone who produced work about a century ago would have work that was not available to be searched online, the phrase doesn’t turn up in lists of his most quoted lines — and, in fact, a Google search that limits results to those created prior to last summer, when it was similarly used to respond to the death of Trayvon Martin, provides no results at all.

So where did that quotation come from, and who actually said it?

A likely source of its proliferation is the singer Rihanna, who has a large social-media following and tweeted the quotation on July 14, 2013, a day after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s case:

Rihanna’s message was retweeted more than 11,000 times, but it doesn’t mention a source for the phrase. In the days that followed, the line was used many times on social media and in articles on the topic of Martin’s death, and within a single day it had acquired W.E.B. DuBois as its author — a source that makes sense, given DuBois’ activism, and his prolific and quotable body of work.

In reality, however, this was the source of the quote:

That’s Vann Newkirk, who tweets as @fivefifths with the Twitter handle “W.E.B.B.I.E. DuBois.”

Reached by email late Monday night, he confirmed that as far as he knows, the idea and the wording were “100% on the spot” from him. When Zimmerman was acquitted, he was talking to some people who felt let down by the justice system; he personally felt like even to feel let down was to expect too much from that system, so he said as much.

“It went pretty wild and got attributed to everyone under the sun, but the one that stuck was DuBois,” he continues, speculating that his Twitter handle was responsible for the confusion. “I felt some pride in how it spread and the fact that people reasonably believed it was the property of people I idolized. At the very least, it resonates, and with all that’s going on, I’m happy people were able to find some meaning in it, whether they attribute it to me or Ronald McDonald.”

Read next: Don’t Blame Social Media for Ferguson’s Troubles

TIME Immigration

President Obama Distorts Amnesty to Sell His Executive Actions

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nov. 21, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

When Presidents abuse words, the nation should notice

President Obama has rolled out his executive action on immigration with a talking point that guts the meaning of a word for political ends. As a general rule, democracies should take notice when their leaders do this.

“I know critics call this ‘amnesty,'” he said today in a speech in Nevada, describing his decision to give temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. “It’s not amnesty. Amnesty is what we have now.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary, an American English standard, gives us this definition of “amnesty”: “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” The Oxford dictionary gives two definitions: “an official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses” and “an undertaking by the authorities to take no action against specified offenses or offenders during a fixed period.” The word “pardon” in both cases is defined to mean a forgiveness for an offense.

As a word in politics, “amnesty” has been as contested as any in recent years. What is not contested is the fact that those immigrants who reside in the United States without documentation have broken the law, even if that law is not widely enforced. In Arizona v. United States, the recent Supreme Court case that overturned a harsh state immigration law, Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up current federal law like this: “Unlawful entry and unlawful reentry into the country are federal offenses. Once here, aliens are required to register with the Federal Government and to carry proof of status on their person. Failure to do so is a federal misdemeanor.” The punishment can include a small fine, possible imprisonment and, “upon the order of the Attorney General,” removal from the country.

Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform label any effort “amnesty” if it treats undocumented immigrants with any official leniency short of prompt punishment under current law and deportation. For the pro-immigration reform camp, a reform proposal is only “amnesty” if it fails to include some penalty, even a different one than those prescribed, for having initially broken the law. This camp argues that the Senate-passed immigration reform proposal, for instance, was not “amnesty,” since it required immigrants to pay a fine before establishing a legal path for them to stay in the country.

President Obama is doing something more convoluted and alarming with the word “amnesty” than both of these camps. His action grants temporary and revokable work permits and legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, if they pay back taxes and pass a background check. There is no fine. He is taking these actions under current law, using the discretion given to the Attorney General over enforcement. He argues that this is not “amnesty,” even though he is granting clear temporary forgiveness, since there is no official pardon, just a mass delay of enforcement.

But Obama goes further. “Amnesty is what we have now,” he says of the current system, in which millions live in violation of a law that is generally not enforced. The suggestion here is that the current lack of enforcement is itself a sort of unofficial pardon. So he is arguing at the same time that granting a new pardon is not amnesty and that allowing an existing pardon to continue is amnesty. He can’t have it both ways.

These two conflicting thoughts become harder to manage when the pardons are compared to each other. The White House says that the core rationale for the President’s actions is “humanitarian,” since the new rules will make it easier for families with undocumented parents and documented children to stay with each other. Implicit in this is the conceit that the new pardon (a temporary work permit and legal status) is less severe than the old pardon (a lack of enforcement).

Those undocumented immigrants who do not receive the President’s dispensation will be undeniably worse off: they will continue to live under the threat of deportation, they will be restricted in their ability to travel outside the United States, and they will continue to lack the ability, in most cases, to find legal employment. President Obama is not arguing otherwise. The premise of his action is that he is making the lives of 5 million better and more fair.

In the end, Obama has made a mush of meaning. Why does this matter? Because words matter. They mean specific things. And that meaning must be defended, because words facilitate the basic premise of open and honest debate that undergirds a democratic system. As George Orwell wrote, in the definitive essay on this topic, “[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” War is not peace. The sun is not blue. Six is not less than five.

There are lots of ways Obama could have chosen to make his case that his executive actions provide the nation an improvement over the status quo. Corrupting the meaning of a word, however, is not a noble one, nor is confusing the debate. It is, to use another word with a clear meaning, deceptive.

TIME

An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

Rear view of baby girl
Vladimir Godnik—Getty Images

The infant's brain retains language that it hears at birth and recognizes it years later, even if the child no longer speaks that language.

A new study study reveals that an infant’s brain may remember a language, even if the child has no idea how to speak a word of it.

The finding comes from a new study performed by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute who are working to understand how the brain learns language.

As it turns out, the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child completely stops using the language. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of so-called “lost” languages remain in the brain.

Because these lost languages commonly occur within the context of international adoptions—when a child is born where one language is spoken and then reared in another country with another language—the researchers recruited test subjects from the international adoption community in Montreal. They studied 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised speaking only French. The second group was bilingual, speaking French and Chinese fluently. And the third was Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life. They had no conscious recollection of the Chinese language. “They were essentially monolingual French at this point,” explained Dr. Denise Klein, one of the researchers, in an interview with TIME. “But they had been exposed to the Chinese language during the first year or two of their life.”

The three groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task–“It’s simply differentiating a tone,” said Klein. “Everybody can do it equally.” Scans were taken of their brains while they performed the task and the researchers studied the images. The results of the study, published in the November 17 edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who “lost” or completely discontinued using the language, matched the brain activation patterns for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth—and was completely different from the group of monolingual French speakers.

The researchers interpret this to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could only have been acquired during the first months of life. In layman’s terms, this means that the infant brain developed Chinese language patterns at birth and never forgot them, even though the child no longer speaks or understands the language.

“We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period,” said Klein. “The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.” The question for the researchers was whether the brains of the Chinese-born children who no longer spoke their native language would react like a French speaker or like a bilingual group.

To see what neural pathways might still exist in a brain and to see what a brain might remember of the mother tongue, the researchers used Chinese language tones, which infants in China would have been exposed to before coming to live in French-speaking Montreal. “If you have never been exposed to Chinese, you would just process the tones as ‘sounds,'” said Klein. However, if someone had been previously exposed to Chinese, like the bilingual Chinese-French speakers, they would process the tone linguistically, using neural pathways in the language-processing hemisphere of their brain, not just the sound-processing ones. Even though they could have completed the task without activating the language hemisphere of their brain, their brains simply couldn’t suppress the fact that the sound was a language that they recognized. Even though they did not speak or understand the language, their brains still processed it as such.

The results were that the brain patterns of the Chinese-born children who had “lost” their native tongue looked like the brains of the bilingual group, and almost nothing like the monolingual French group. This was true, even though the children didn’t actually speak any Chinese. “These templates are maintained in the brain, even though they no longer have any knowledge of Chinese,” said Klein, who was not surprised that these elements remained in the brain.

As with most scientific research, this finding opens the door to even more questions, particularly as to whether children exposed to a language early on in life, even if they don’t use the language, will have an easier time learning that language later in life. Don’t go rushing to Baby Einstein quite yet, though. “We haven’t tested whether children who are exposed to language early, re-learn the language more easily later,” said Dr. Klein, “But it is what we predict.”

What the study does suggest though is the importance of this early phase of language exposure. “What the study points out is how quite surprisingly early this all takes place,” said Klein. “There has been a lot of debate about what the optimal period for the development of language and lots of people argued for around the ages of 4 or 5 as one period, then around age 7 as another and then around adolescence as another critical period. This really highlights the importance of the first year from a neural perspective.”

“Everything about language processing follows on the early ability to do these phonological discriminations,” said Klein. “You become better readers if you do these things.”

While Klein isn’t an expert in the field of language acquisition, she does surmise that the more languages you are exposed to the better for neural pathway development, but she hasn’t fully tested that hypothesis. She mentioned other studies that show that early exposure to multiple languages can lead to more lingual “flexibility” down the road. Before you clean out Berlitz and build a Thai-Kurdish-German-Mandarin language playlist for your infant, Klein doesn’t recommend loading kids up with “thousands of languages.” She explains: “I don’t think bombarding somebody with multiple languages necessarily improves or changes anything.” Klein thought ensuring future lingual flexibility could come from exposure to just two or three languages at an early age.

To that end, Klein does think it’s important to develop these neural templates early in life, which she considers similar to wiring a room—put in the plugs, ports and outlets first and if you need to add a light later, you won’t have to start from scratch. Luckily there are no products required to develop a language template in the brain: simply talking to your baby in your native tongue is enough to develop those all-important neural pathways. If you want to invest in Baby Berlitz, well, the studies aren’t in yet, but it can’t hurt.

TIME language

Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year Is ‘Exposure’

89001431
Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of the Ebola virus. Kallista Images — Getty Images/Kallista Images

The editors found their inspiration by connecting the big new stories of the year

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.

Dictionary.com’s 2014 Word of the Year from Dictionary.com on Vimeo.

TIME language

See Every ‘Word of the Year’ in One Chart

From 'Not!' to 'w00t' and everything in between

Every year, from autumn through January, the world enjoys a very special season: institutions selecting their respective words of the year, one after the other, in a glorious parade (for unabashed nerds like the author of this article). The modern tradition, as TIME explains, was started in 1990 by the American Dialect Society. Later, major dictionaries like Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com joined the show.

Below, we’ve compiled a graphic showing the historical record that is every single one of their past picks, each of which is like a little time capsule for what was on people’s minds or in people’s lives that year. There are lesser known outlets whose picks we haven’t included, and it’s worth noting that some dictionary publishers have decided not to take part in the frenzy at all. “As the years went on, more and more companies did a word of the year thing,” Steve Kleinedler, executive editor of American Heritage Dictionaries says. “We didn’t want to be yet another voice jumping on the bandwagon.”

Here’s the trail that the increasingly crowded “WOTY” bandwagon has tread for the past quarter century.

words of the year list
Bronson Stamp for TIME

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

TIME language

Clickbait, Normcore, Mansplain: Runners-Up for Oxford’s Word of the Year

500047967
The expression displayed by the women in this stock photo is sometimes described as a duck face. JGI/Jamie Grill — Getty Images/Blend Images

Here are the words that Oxford editors would like to give a hearty round of recognition

On Nov. 17, Oxford announced that their word of the year for 2014 is “vape.” The venerable publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary also gave TIME three lists of candidates: the long list, the short list and the “blip list.”

The short list contains strong contenders that, had the linguistic winds blown a little differently, might have won the title. The long list contains solid candidates that editors found easier to cut. And the “blip list” is full of early favorites that editors watched fizzle in usage by the time their final votes came around in the autumn. Here is everything that had a chance, with most definitions taken or adapted from Oxford:

Winner

vape (v.): to inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device

Short list

bae (n.): 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.”

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.): 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.

Long list

anti-vax (adj.): describing someone who is opposed to vaccination.

Brexit (n.): reference to the proposed exit of Britain from the E.U.

brogrammer (n.): a portmanteau of bro and programmer, which can describe a computer programmer with typically macho characteristics.

clickbait (n.): content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.

cybernat (n.): a term used to pejoratively refer to supporters of Scottish independence, especially those who express opinions online.

dronie (n.): a selfie taken from a camera attached to a flying drone.

duck face (n.): a (pejorative) term for a facial expression made by pressing one’s lips together into the shape of a duck’s bill, often performed in selfies.

Euromaidan (n.): a word attached to protests in Ukraine, often used to describe anti-government demonstrators.

frost quake (n.): a sudden, rapid freezing of ground in which frozen water can crack surrounding rock and soil, causing loud sounds.

hangry (adj): to experience both hunger and anger, often to be easily angered because of hunger or so hungry that one becomes angry.

mansplain (v.): to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.

microaggression (n.): brief and commonplace behaviors, intentional or unintentional, that convey hostility or insults toward another individual or group, particularly an ethnic group.

neuromorphic (adj): describing computing systems that mimic the human nervous system (and more complicated things).

polar vortex (n.): though many experts have debated the use of the term in the media, it describes a system of winds that circle one of the earth’s poles, the state of which can contribute to very cold temperatures.

poor door (n.): a separate door to a building meant to be used by people of a lower economic class, as in a luxury apartment building with a block of affordable units.

Blip list

Columbusing (n.): the act of appropriating, without acknowledgment, a cultural attribute associated with an ethnic group other than one’s own.

conscious uncoupling (n.): an approach to ending a marriage or romantic relationship which emphasizes acceptance of mutual responsibility.

ice bucket challenge (n.): a stunt in which a person films the act of dumping ice water on their head and uploads the video to social media, challenging a friend to do the same or donate to charity.

parcelcopter (n.): an unmanned aircraft used to deliver goods.

smugshrug (n.): an emoticon representing the face and arms of smiling person with hands raised in a shrugging gesture.

spornosexual (n.): a man who is extremely conscious of his appearance and devoted to cultivating a sexually attractive physique.

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 Culture

Why Mandarin Won’t Be a Lingua Franca

Chinese characters
Getty Images

The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable

A Russian, a Korean, and a Mexican walk into a bar. How do they communicate?

In English, if at all, even though it’s not anyone’s native language. Swap out a bar for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in China this week, and the attending heads of state from those three countries still have to communicate in English: It’s the only official language of the APEC, even when the APEC gathers in Beijing.

Mark Zuckerberg recently scored points during his own visit to Beijing when he made some remarks in Mandarin. The news sparked talk about whether China’s economic rise means Mandarin could someday rival English as a global language. Don’t count on it. Fluency in Mandarin will always be helpful for foreigners doing business in China, much like mastery of Portuguese will give you a leg up in Brazil. But Mandarin poses no threat to English as the world’s bridge language, the second tongue people turn to when communicating and doing commerce across borders.

Thanks to the British empire, native English speakers are strategically sprinkled across the globe. English is also the native language of shared popular culture – music, movies, even sport, with the recent ascendance of England’s Premier League. And English is undeniably the language of the technologies connecting us all together. Most languages don’t even bother to coin terms for things like “the Internet” or “text” or “hashtag.”

It’s little wonder that an estimated 2 billion people will speak functional English by 2020, the vast majority of them having learned it as their second language.

English is an inherently neutral language: There is no gender in English as there are in Romance languages. There are no class or generational distinctions baked into the language, as there are with so many languages that feature different you’s with different verb conjugations – the deferential you (boss, elder, stranger) versus the familiar you (friend, subordinate, child). Ours is a radically egalitarian and modern language, and it is simpler and more direct as a result.

English is also more politically neutral than we think. Even Islamist Jihadist propagandists would concede that English, is a convenience in spreading their word. And any relative decline over time of America’s global power and influence will actually help, rather than hurt, the cause of English worldwide, further decoupling people’s perception of the language from their perceptions of the United States and its influence.

The French – whose language was the last viable alternative in the race to become the world’s lingua franca – are understandably sore about the triumph of English. But even French companies have had to fall in line, accepting English as their organizational language. In what amounted to a telling parody of modern France, one grievance underlying a recent Air France strike was the airline union’s anger at the adoption of English as the default language for internal communications across its global operations.

The odds against a Chinese dialect ever gaining traction as an international language are formidable, for linguistic, economic, cultural, and political reasons. For starters, the language is just too hard for outsiders to attain fluency. Then there is the inconvenient fact that Mandarin doesn’t hold sway throughout all of China.

Indeed, resistance to any claim the Chinese language may have for global status may be strongest in the country’s own neighborhood, where nations are nervous about China’s intentions. The PEW Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project surveys show that people in nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan are far more comfortable with America than with China as regional superpower. And so it’s no accident that English is the only official language of ASEAN, the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations.

This cordon sanitaire containing China’s cultural (and if it comes to it, military) expansion is one of the lesser appreciated dynamics of today’s world, one that augurs well for the cause of the English language and American cultural influence. All the hype surrounding China’s rise to great power status can make us lose sight of the fact that what realtors might call the “China Adjacent Region” (let’s call it CAR) – the crescent encompassing Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the rest of Southeast Asia, and India – far surpasses China in population and economic power.

So don’t expect Chinese to take on English for global preeminence. That’s the good news for us as Americans. The bad news – at least for Americans thinking they don’t need to learn a second language– is that English’s very universality will make more and more of the world’s population multilingual. If all our kids speak is English, they’ll be at a disadvantage in a globalized labor force – because everyone else will speak it too. But at least we get to pick our second language.

Andres Martinez is editorial director of Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He teaches journalism at Arizona State University.

Read next: Speaking More Than One Language Could Sharpen Your Brain

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser