Looking Back On The "Words Of The Year' Can Tell Us A Lot About American Culture

by E. Ce Miller
Matt Watson/Stocksy

From Oktoberfest and Kindergarten to Krampus and Heidi Klum, America’s borrowings from German culture are numbered and diverse, but I bet you didn’t know that Word of the Year — the annual tradition of highlighting the single term most illustrative of the last year in American life — is one of them. In fact, Word of the Year, or Wort des Jahres, appears to have begun in Germany in 1971, a whole two decades before it crossed the Atlantic and made its way into the hearts and minds of America’s word nerds.

It wasn't until 1991 that the American Dialect Society (ADS) — a centuries-old organization dedicated to the study of American language and all of its fascinating evolutions and influences — decided to get in on the WOTY action, by announcing the U.S.'s very first Word of the Year for the year prior, 1990. (It was "bushlips" — more on that later.) As the oldest English-language version, (and the only one that is announced after the end of the calendar year, just in case December throws us a lexical curveball, I guess) ADS’s Words of the Year have featured terms like "cyber" and “World Wide Web," "Y2K" and "metrosexual," "app" and "fake news." And, what’s fascinating about WOTY is that the words chosen are rarely words that have made a lasting impact on the English lexicon. Often, they didn't outlast the single year of their selection.

The first-ever American Word of the Year, for example, was “bushlips” — yup, as in the lips of President George Bush, Sr. A portmanteau of “Bush” and “lips”, the term became early-'90s slang for political campaign promises that never came true. Like H.W.’s apparent promises, “bushlips” didn’t stick for very long, either.

The following year was marked by frequent usage of the expression "mother of all" — defined as the "greatest, or most impressive." 1992 was the year of "Not!" If you were interested in taking a ride down the "information superhighway," 1993 was definitely your year. By 1994, Americans had moved on to "cyber."

By the time “chad” (as in “hanging chad” — that small scrap of paper punched from a voting card that rocked headlines in 2000) made the list, Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and later decided to enter the mix. These dictionaries now largely look to their users in determining their WOTYs — tabulating the number of times someone searches the World Wide Web for the definition of a specific term.

But that’s the thing about Word of the Year — it denotes little more than a passing trend. The annual terms hardly read like a comprehensive history of U.S. culture. Rather, they pinpoint some of the most ephemeral moments in American life: often, the most ubiquitous term of any given year is also the one most quickly discarded, forgotten, relegated to the annals of weird American history that nobody really remembers and that generally didn’t have significant lasting impact. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to the day when "fake news" finds the same fate as “plutoed."