Leadership

Because Innovation: Dialect Society Names “Because” Word of the Year

By / Jan 8, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

In a list that included selfie, Obamacare, and twerk, it was because that won “Word of the Year” honors at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting—because it’s being used in innovative ways.

Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks clearly has never played around with the English language.

At their annual meeting last weekend, members of the American Dialect Society (ADS) had some fun with the language themselves, noting and debating the ways that vocabulary and usage have morphed over the past year. A highlight of the event was the announcement of ADS’s 2013 Word of the Year.

Their choice, by attendee vote? A word that has been a part of our lexicon for centuries: because.

“If people were trying to place bets beforehand, I don’t think that would’ve been on too many people’s radars,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of ADS’s New Words Committee. “It’s a very old word that’s deeply embedded in the language, which people are finding new ways to use, and very often it’s intentionally playing with the established rules of grammar. I think the fact that this is such a linguistic innovation really appealed to a room full of linguists.”

In addition to using because before a full clause or with the word of, it can now precede a noun, like “because science,” or before an adjective, like “because awesome,” Zimmer explained. “At first it seems like a very odd choice, but the more you think about it, the more you realize exactly how innovative it is, even if it’s just a seemingly nondescript word.”

Other word categories in ADS’s vote included most useful (also won by because), most creative (catfish, meaning to misrepresent oneself online), most unnecessary (sharknado, made famous by a made-for-TV movie), and most likely to succeed (binge-watch, that thing you do to catch up on episodes of Breaking Bad or Parks and Recreation).

The winning words and other nominees will receive a full lexicographical treatment in Journal of American Speech, ASD’s quarterly publication.

“We’re engaged with these words on an ongoing basis,” said Zimmer. “We’ll look at the words historically. For example, when did they first emerge, and what are the different ways that they worked their way into the language.”

The event itself, held at the end of ADS’s three-day conference, is a fun diversion from academic sessions and paper presentations, Zimmer said. The New Words Committee nominates words in various categories throughout the year, and attendees fill out the categories onsite. After a “lengthy debate,” the words are voted on by a show of hands.

“We hold our meeting in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America, so we get a lot of linguists who are interested in joining in, and we always have at least a couple hundred people filling the room to argue for or against various words,” he said, though only ADS members’ votes are counted. “It’s a good time, yet at the same time we’re trying to think about these words in a serious way, even though it’s true that a lot of the words might be a little frivolous or a little playful. We’re always glad to provide that entertainment value as well as trying to come up with something that will get people thinking.”

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is an assistant editor at Associations Now. More »

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