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What Word Sums Up Your Year?

Word of the year contests teach us something about our collective psyche.

Key points

  • Every year, multiple organizations hold "Word of the Year" contests.
  • Looking back over decades of winning words gives us some perspective on current societal pre-occupations.
  • Winning words reveal significant shifts in public consciousness and values over time.

Does anyone remember Bushlips”? Or how about truthiness”? Both were previous winners of the annual word-of-the-year (WOTY) contests that express the same disdain for insincerity we find in more recent WOTY candidates such asalternative facts” and fake news.”

Since Bushlips” dates all the way back to 1990, when then-presidential hopeful George H. W. Bush invited Americans to read his no-tax-speaking lips, only to later break his promise, we have clearly long questioned political veracity. Likewise, truthiness” was a favorite of political satirist Stephen Colbert, who introduced the word in 2005 to describe something that was true only because one strongly wanted it to be so, rather than because of any evidence that it was—very much apropos our current state of pretending that COVID is so over.

Looking back over decades of omnipresent end-of-year lists prompts us to reflect on whats important as a society. The words capture our angst over major social, political, and economic events, and, importantly, they reveal significant shifts in public consciousness and values over time.

For instance, we can see the overwhelming number of new, internet-inspired words that populated lists in the 1990s as the computer and network age took the world by storm, or the massive number of words inspired by our new COVID-driven lifestyles that topped lists in 2020 and 2021.

And, of course, such lists also provide a bit of comic relief, offering a glimpse at the humorous—even if sometimes fleeting—fads that caught our fancy, ranging over the years from manbuns” to twerking” to “GIFs” to going goblin-mode.”

But what makes a word end-of-year list-worthy? In other words, what different approaches do the organizations spearheading these lists take to decide what word best represents our collective zeitgeist that year? And does the word deemed most important vary depending on who is being asked or how votes are being calculated? A look at recent polls and word-of-the-year decisions provides some insight.

What makes a word a winner?

This year’s WOTY contest winners ranged from’s “woman” to Oxford Language’s “goblin-mode” to Merriam-Webster’s “gaslighting." If these strike you as a surprisingly diverse array, it might leave you wondering how, exactly, the competitors and winners are selected.

When considering candidates, the first order of business is what exactly counts as a word.” This might sound obvious to those of us who attended kindergarten, but different organizations vary in the flexibility of their criteria. The American Dialect Society, which holds the longest-running WOTY contest, considers potential nominees to include multiword phrases, compounds, and idiomatic expressions that behave like single lexical items.”

Similarly, Oxford Languages, which has its own word of the year each year, also allows for multi-word expressions as long as they capture the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months.”

Merriam-Webster, whose word of the year this year was gaslighting,” has typically selected single-word WOTYs, but has no objection to multi-word "words": the dictionary has many multi-word entries, including "Feliz Navidad" and "coffee maker." Further, they even went so far as to pick the suffix "-ism" in 2015 as the word of the year, so clearly, WOTY contenders are not subject to a lot of hard and fast rules by those running the show.

Where we word

There is also the question of where and how words are judged. Merriam-Webster and use data from online dictionary searches, analyzing which words were searched for most often and which showed a surge in search traffic that particular year.

Other sites and organizations solicit more direct input from the public, with the American Dialect Society, for example, sending out an open call for nominees in the weeks leading up to an annual in-person meeting where linguists, journalists, and random word-freaks get to battle over the merits of various words and even, in some cases, propose new ones. Votes are then tallied by hand-raising among attendees at the annual meeting until winners in various categories are chosen and, finally, capping the event, the word to which all others pale is named by final nomination and vote.

Source: astize/Pixabay

Taking a more integrative tack, Oxford languages used a hybrid approach. The editors first compiled candidates based on analysis of new and emerging word trends. An internal team narrowed the words down to three candidates, and, this year for the first time, they put the final decision to a vote with the general public.

Swaying the voters

In addition to these institutional WOTY selections, numerous online votes take place every year, with more general public involvement in coming up with and voting on words. Where this voting takes place appears to influence which words take top prize, supporting the idea that words of the year reflect the differing priorities and cultures of different groups.

For example, a bracket-type contest was run for Grammar Girl newsletter subscribers and social media followers, which turned up big differences between the voting patterns of followers on LinkedIn, a largely business-focused group, and followers on Mastodon, a group made up largely of people seeking a social media platform not run by a large corporation.

LinkedIn followers were more likely than Mastodon followers to vote for "inflation" over "Wordle," "work from home" over "unaccountable," "recession" over "polarized," "quiet quitting" over "trauma," "gaslight" over "climate emergency," and "mass shooting" over "slava Ukraine."

In other words, LinkedIn followers were more likely to favor business- and economy-oriented terms, and less likely to favor terms that might be considered to be more political, emotional, or international.

Further, although the number of respondents was smaller, on the platforms where people were able to see other people's votes before they voted themselves (TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube), there was a tendency: the winning words consistently won more dramatically than on platforms on which people voted without that information, as if seeing the trend swayed people. This fits with two other instances in which we've seen vote swaying.

In a recent Grammar Girl podcast interview, Ellen Jovin, author of Rebel with a Clause, and well-known for conducting voluminous online language polls, explained that she ended up doing her polls on Twitter instead of Facebook because Twitter shielded respondents from previous answers before they voted, and Twitter polls granted respondents anonymity—both of which removed peer pressure from voting.

She found that when she posted identical polls to both Twitter and Facebook, the results would diverge. She said that on Facebook "people start seeing a trend, and then that affects their answers."

Some of the established, more official WOTY contests even welcome voter persuasion. For example, there is often pressure to shift one’s vote during the American Dialect Society live voting at the annual meeting—a situation with the least anonymity and a high level of peer pressure because attendees are encouraged to actively lobby for words. A word that seems like a winner can fall away in later rounds of voting as impassioned speeches sway attendees.

Participants’ openness to influence suggests that it is hard to pick just one single word to sum up the entirety of a year because there are different aspects of our experience that these words capture.

What’s in a word

Key in all of these contests is that the words feel like they really encapsulate that specific year in some fundamental way. These often involve concerns about a pressing environmental or social issue that has weighed heavily that year.

When the same topics re-occur across several years, it seems to be a rough measure of our perception of an existential threat. For example, we find that expressions about dangers to our natural environment regularly resurface over the years, such as “climate emergency,” “carbon footprint,” “gigafire,” and “climate canary.”

Likewise, the explosion in technology and digital media since the early 1990s can be tracked by looking back across the decades, with early references feeling almost quaint (i.e., “web” or “cyber” in the 1990s) compared to later words that reveal its growing integration into our daily lives (e.g., later WOTYs like “podcast,” “unfriend,” “google,” and “tweet”).

Most recently, a shifting gender culture has been evident in the words that have topped lists, such as “they,” "(my) pronouns," and "LGBTQIA."

Another interesting social trend revealed by surveying words over the past several decades is that our fixation with truth has always loomed large in WOTY contests, with the continuing theme that the real truth is often obscured by intentional misinformation (like “fake news,” “post-truth,” or “gaslighting”).

Why it matters

In the end, word-of-the-year votes give us insight into who we are and what is important. Their value being not just the collective cultural catharsis of all a year has wrought, or a few lighter notes of laughs we have shared, but a historical record of what has mattered to us as a society, a legacy—and perhaps in some cases a warning—to our future selves.


American Dialect Society, Word of the Year.

Word of the Year 2022. Merriam-Webster.

Word of the Year. Oxford Languages.

2022 Word Of The Year is.

Grammar Girl Podcast.

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