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2019 WOTY and Neologism

The Word of the Year for 2019 is “existential” or “climate emergency” or “climate strike” or my personal favorite, “they;” depending on where you search. Each year a group of linguists from different organizations; i.e. Merriam-Webster, Oxford Languages, Collins Dictionary, dictionary.com, and the American Dialect Society, among others, pick their word of the year. Sometimes abbreviated WOTY, the word of the year is a singular word or expression that is significant to the public.

Linguists study the science and utilization of language. Their attention is on public practice of the term or expression and how it interfaces with the real-world. To become the Word of the Year, linguists consider the most searched words, the ones that have a significant spike from the previous year, and do they have lasting potential.


The 2019 Word of the Year for Merriam Webster is they, having a 313% spike in searches over the previous year. Moreover, there is a shift in the way they is used, which lured people to their dictionaries to hunt for the current definition. The first definition states, “those people, animals, or things,” and the second meaning is, “used to refer to people in a general way or to a group of people who are not specified.”

As stated by Merriam-Webster, “English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence, they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.” Now in the place of the word “he or she,” the singular pronoun to use is “them or they,” which is preferred in professional writing.

Oxford Languages and Collins Dictionary

The Oxford Word of the Year for 2019 is climate emergency, and Collins Dictionary chose climate strike.  One of the expressions represents a situation and the other designates an action, so I will address them together. Climate emergency is, “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it.” Climate strike is “a form of protest in which people absent themselves from education or work in order to join demonstrations demanding action to counter climate change.” Both expressions show that the environment is an ongoing concern being disseminated in the headlines.


The WOTY for dictionary.com is existential, defined as, “of or relating to existence…concerned with the nature of human existence as determined by the individual’s freely made choices.” The word captures the struggle to survive, as topics of climate change and gun violence dominate our attention. It begs us to ask big questions of, why are we here, and what choices will extend our life beyond our self.

Altogether, dictionary.com added over 300 words, expressions, and acronyms this past year. Known as a neologism, defined as, “a new word, meaning, usage, or phrase; the introduction or use of new words or new senses of existing words.” Linguists consider how current words are being utilized and if used on a massive scale. Though the words have been around a while, in 2019 they were added to the dictionary. Here are a few examples.

Words Added to the Dictionary in 2019

In Conversations:

Deep Dive: “a thorough or comprehensive analysis of a subject or issue.”

Infodump: “a large quantity of backstory, or background information, supplied at once.”

Elevator Pitch: “a brief talk or pitch intended to sell or win approval for something.”

On Social Media:

Shitposting: “a form of trolling when someone ‘posts off-topic,’ false, or offensive contributions to an online forum with the intent to derail the discussions or provoke other participants.”

Crybullies: “a person who self-righteously harasses or intimidates others while playing the victim, especially of a perceived social injustice.”

It’s a good idea to add these two expressions to your vocabulary so you are able to call out people for what they are doing with their social media comments.

As far as acronyms go, here are two dictionary additions: JSYK: “just so you know,” and JOMO: “joy of missing out.”

Past Words of the Year

An interesting exercise is looking up Past Words of the Year to grasp what happened at the time; it’s like a walk-through history.

1992: not! – as in just kidding

1993: information superhighway

1994: cyber, morph

1995: web

1996: mom – as in soccer mom

1997: millennium bug

1998: e- – as in e-mail or e-commerce

1999: Y2K

2000: chad – Florida voting

2001: 9-11

2002: weapons of mass destruction

2003: metrosexual

2004: red state, blue state, purple state – as in 2004 US presidential election

2005: truthiness – from The Colbert Report

2006: plutoed – as in devalued like the planet Pluto

2007: Subprime – below a prime rate

2008: bailout – stock market crash

2009: tweet

2010: app

2011: tergiversate – as in changing opinions like politicians, the stock market, and public polls

2012: hashtag

2013: privacy – Facebook

2014: exposure – having all your information out there

2015: identity – big brother is watching

2016: xenophobia – fear of people of other cultures

2017: fake news – President Trump’s phrase

2018: misinformation – media’s skewed reporting

You can check the definitions of these words on dictionary.com.

American Dialect Society

By the way, The American Dialect Society has been announcing the Word of the Year longer than any organization, and they take it even further. The society chooses the Word for the End of the Decade, Word of the 20th Century, and Word of the Past Millennium. As with the WOTY, we can determine what transpired at that time.

Word of the Decade:      1990s: web        2000s: google (verb)      2010s: they (singular)

Word of the 20th Century:   jazz

Word of the Past Millennium:   she

Examining the Word of the Year provides a history lesson, recalling what happened during that year, and revealing what was the focus. Our language is not a static entity; it requires linguists to update the dictionaries by adding new words, and managing the definitions changed by the times. The English Language is integral for us to communicate, as long as we understand the meaning.

I wonder what the 2020 Word of the Year will be? Maybe it will be hoarding.

Dana Pope
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