Since 1991, the American Dialect Society (ADS) has been choosing a “word of the year,” one that is “significant to the happenings of [the year], indicative of public discourse and national preoccupations in [the year].” Last year’s word was #blacklivesmatter, and was, I believe, the first hashtag to be so honored. This year they are considering legions of nominations, including “deconfliction,” a word John Kerry used to describe avoiding airspace conflicts, and “unicorns,” startups valued at over a billion dollars, as well as “schlonged,” the vulgar Yiddish term used infamously by Donald Trump in reference to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2008 Democratic nomination process.
The ADS will announce the 2015 Word of the Year at their annual meeting, which takes place in mid-January. In the meantime, I asked a group of college students what they would nominate. Several offered up “terrorism” and one said “radical Islam.” Other nominations were “global warming,” “Ferguson,” and “May the Force be with you.” One student nominated “refugee,” though qualified it by saying it should really not be the word alone, but “refugee” alongside the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, which surely captured the world’s attention and put a huge exclamation point on the refugee crisis.
I’ve thought a long time about my word of the year, and for me it would also be connected to an image: I would like to honor the “student activists” across the country who have been drawing attention to the need for colleges and universities to work much, much harder on diversifying their student bodies, faculty, and staffs—and at working to ensure social justice for all. In a year of so much horror and despair, these students embody some of our highest and best ideals.
I’ll be looking forward to reading about the word or words the American Dialect Society chooses as especially emblematic of 2015. But Oxford Dictionaries has beaten them to it and already announced their choice—and it’s not a word at all, but an emoji known as “face with tears of joy.”
Apparently, this symbol was used most by people around the world in 2015, accounting for 20% of all emojis in the UK and 17% in the US. Who knew??
So Happy 2016 to all emojis—and here’s to your word of the year!