The dictionary gained weight, but not heft, in 2013

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As 2013 heads for the mass grave of history, we look to its lexical legacy. What words characterized this year, for good or ill? OK, don't answer out loud if you're reading this in church.

Oxford Dictionaries grabbed us by the zeitgeist with its choice: "selfie." As with so many trends, like binge-watching or twerking, the phenomenon isn't really new this year; it just suddenly came to the attention of media people in a position to disapprove of it publicly.

Yes, yes, endless narcissism, blah blah demise of Western civilization, blah increasing navel-gazing self-obsessed social isolation paired with over-sharing blah.

Selfies, for those without camera phones or indoor plumbing, are self-portrait photographs taken with the mirroring option of your mobile device of choice and your cheek pressed up against the cheek of some other manically grinning person. The resulting image is then posted to social media with a caption including at least three exclamation points.

It's really no more inane or pernicious than handing a camera to a waitress, bartender, fellow hiker or arresting officer with a plea to capture a special moment. You no longer have to set a timer and run around to mug with the group only to discover later that everyone was decapitated when the camera shifted slightly.

Words I learned this year include "cronut," a mythical baked good created by crossing a croissant with a doughnut and then with a marketing genius; "fatberg," a massive clog of solidified cooking grease, wet naps and even more distasteful waste discovered in a sewer in London; "sharknado," a film title that suggests many other comically improbable threat-weather combinations I hope to trademark; "vape," a verb meaning to smoke electronic cigarettes; and "twerk," which we all wish we'd never heard.

Dictionary.com chose the word "privacy." Kind of an old-timey word your parents used to use in regard, mostly, to the bathroom and the recently bereaved, we heard a lot about it this year. From the Transportation Security Administration's centerfolds of air travelers to warrantless surveillance, domestic drones and the Manning and Snowden spying cases, it was a year of revelations that you might as well leave your door unlocked and your pants down.

The National Security Agency knows more about you than Santa does. Hackers have Targeted your bank account. "Naked and Afraid" isn't just the title of a reality show; it's a good candidate to replace "E Pluribus Unum" as the national brand statement.

Venerable Merriam-Webster, the faculty chaperone at the word-of-the-year party, goes strictly by the numbers to determine which word has seen the biggest spike in online lookups. Somewhat distressingly, in 2013 that word was "science."

As with last year's twin winners "socialism" and "capitalism," the fact that "science" makes us reach for a dictionary suggests that we haven't a clue what it even means. We must be murky on how exactly this science thing is different from beliefs, anecdotes and Googling.

But I'm going to try to look on the bright side as we approach the new year, so fresh and clean and full of promise. Hope is the thing with feathers, and if we're lucky we haven't hunted it down to deep-fry its wings yet.

At least we're investigating. At least we're looking up words like "science," even if our newfound interest in the subject was inspired by binge-watching "Breaking Bad."

Walter White may be a criminal who makes money by cooking meth. He may be fictional. But he understands science, values his privacy, and I'd bet a dozen cronuts he polls better than Congress.

Samantha Bennett, freelance writer: sambennett412@gmail.com.


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