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WOTY 2017

/ 05:10 AM December 27, 2017

That abbreviation is real and means “Word of the Year,” or rather words of the year considering the proliferation of choices in English by various dictionary publishers.

WOTY selections seem to have been started by the American Dialect Society in 1971, with such categories as “most useful,” “most outrageous,” “most likely to succeed,” and “least likely to succeed.” I particularly like the group’s “most creative” selections, examples of which are its 2016 selection “ammosexual” (someone who loves firearms in a fetishistic way) and, in 2012, “gate lice” (airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting for a flight).

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A few years ago, dictionary publishers got into the act with an eye on promotions. The growing popularity of these WOTY choices was also tied to the development of digital information technologies, with massive data now being stored on the internet and constituting what scholars in linguistics call a corpus or a body of texts for analysis.

Dictionary.com relied on lookups or words on whose meanings people did searches. Others, like the Oxford English Dictionary, have a committee that looks at trends in the use of English words, including neologisms or new words being coined, changes in the meanings of words, and frequency of use.

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Also tapping into the internet, but in a different way, were calls for online WOTY nominations, which have been done for two of the other most widely spoken languages of the world: Hindi and Chinese. The search for a Chinese WOTY, with millions of nominations, deserves a separate column, maybe for the Lunar New Year.

Cultural significance

Whatever the process, word-of-the-year searches have become important for social science researchers. The Oxford English Dictionary explains the WOTY choices “as not only reflective of the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of this past year, but as having lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”

The WOTY choices are well-publicized globally and often end up used and discussed even more, as we’ve seen in 2016 words of the year, “fake news” and “post-truth.”

I wrote last month about early WOTY choices that came from the Cambridge Dictionary (“populism”) and dictionary.com (“complicit”). Since then, other English dictionaries have announced their choices. Oxford chose “youthquake,” defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” The word was said to have been popularized during the last general elections in the United Kingdom and, later in the year, in New Zealand, where there was a surge in young people casting their vote.

The choice did raise questions about whether it is an English word that was significant only for Britain and New Zealand. Ndtv.com, a widely read Indian news website, was brutal with its headline: “Oxford Word of the Year is a Word Nobody Actually Uses.” Actually, “youthquake” was coined way back in 1965 and does not seem to have become popular. Let’s see if it will now pick up and spread to other World Englishes, including Philippine English.

Merriam-Webster, which has a popular online dictionary website, identified “feminism” as its 2017 WOTY. It certainly is not a new word, but the publishers said there were spikes in lookups of the word in their online dictionary, spurred by such events as the Women’s March on Washington and other cities of the world early in the year, and US President Donald Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway declaring she was not a feminist if feminism meant being antimale and proabortion. Spikes in lookups also went up with the release of the movie “Wonder Woman” and a cable TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Then came the series of exposés of sexual misconduct, mainly by rich and powerful men harassing women.

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Merriam-Webster defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests,” even as it acknowledges that the word first entered a Webster dictionary in 1841 and originally meant “qualities of females.” In the Philippines, there was an Asociacion Feminista Filipinas in the early 20th century, mainly known for its fight for women’s right to vote.

The WOTY searches are showing that we do have many Englishes now, so the American publishers come up with different choices from those of the British. Meanwhile, we will have to wait till January for the WOTY choices of the Australian Macquarie Dictionary’s choice, which is announced late in that month.

‘Fotobam’

We’ve had a “Salita ng Taon” search for more than 10 years now, organized by the Filipinas Institute of Translation with various partners. The Salita ng Taon is done by nominations of individual academic researchers, many from the University of the Philippines, which are then reviewed by a committee. After nominations are shortlisted, there is also an online People’s Choice. In 2016 the Salita ng Taon was “fotobam.”

We’ve seen how important WOTY searches can be, and I feel our own search for a Salita ng Taon, which is no longer annual, should be made regular. We might even want to innovate and look at differences in the nominations by socioeconomic status, gender and age. And we certainly need not limit ourselves to Filipino. Why not Cebuano or Ilokano searches?

I’ve thought, too, about the possibilities of going for a kind of global word of the year. Look at the choices of the Fundación del Español Urgente, or Fundéu, which is connected with the Royal Spanish Academy for its “Palabra del año”—“selfi” in 2014 and “populismo” in 2016. These are words that also made it as English WOTY in that year. “Selfie,” too, was a Salita ng Taon in 2014.

We may already be seeing some kind of “conversation” between Spanish and English through the online SpanishDict.com, which offers, among other services, online machine translations. Looking at the most frequently requested words for translation—from English to Spanish and vice versa—it is able to offer new questions on the use of language and its relationship to social developments.

“Que es sad?” (What is sad?) was one of the most frequently asked questions. The reason? Trump likes to end his notorious Twitter postings with the comment “Sad.”

Sad.

On a happier note, “despacito” and “chantaje,” from the hit songs of those titles, came out top of the list. Curious, I asked SpanishDict to translate. “Despacito” can mean “slowly,” “gently,” “quietly,” or “softly,” while “chantaje” meant “blackmail.”

E-mail: [email protected]

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