Mind your language: 2013's words of the year

New terms entered common parlance with exuberant frequency this year. But what the most popular ones tell us about ourselves is not especially flattering

Miley Cyrus really worked her butt off this year and her efforts were at last recognised, albeit in unlikely quarters. Both the Collins and Oxford English dictionaries have shortlisted “twerking” – a term popularised almost single-handedly (or double-cheekedly?) by the 21-year-old singer – as one of 2013’s Words of the Year.

Created by members of the New Orleans bounce music scene during the 1990s, twerking (see definitions, below) was inflicted on a mass audience by Ms Cyrus this summer at the MTV Awards, where she controversially buffed her behind on the crotch of alleged sexist Robin Thicke. It was not, however, the word of the year.

For Collins, the overall winner was “geek”, a familiar classic freshly redefined. Where once the word denoted a loser, dork, dweeb or nerd, it now, Collins claims, means simply “a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”. For instance: a food geek, a fashion geek, a football geek, a Game of Thrones geek.

The OED’s overall word of the year, meanwhile, was “selfie”: a self-portrait, specifically one snapped at arm’s length using a smartphone and then posted to social media. The practice became so popular in 2013 that Ms Cyrus’s chum Justin Bieber invested in a smartphone app, Shots Of Me, designed solely for the taking and sharing of selfies.

The only word besides “twerk” to make it on to both shortlists was “Bitcoin”, the burgeoning virtual currency, which – along with “selfie”,  “geek” and “phablet” – serves to highlight the centrality of technology to new language. Next year, such lists may feasibly include “Glass”, as in Google Glass, the search giant’s hi-tech specs, which are due to be available to consumers in 2014 and which have earned their early adopters one of this year’s finer insults: “Glasshole”.

Social media also has a crucial role to play in the measurement of the most used words. The OED’s method for making its list involves software designed to scan new web content for new and emerging words, which inevitably skews the choices towards tech terminology. The Oxford team noted that its new verb. “binge-watch”, had “been used in the circles of television fandom since the late 1990s, but... has come into its own with the advent of on-demand viewing and online streaming. In 2013, binge-watching got a boost when Netflix released episodes of its serial programming all at once.”

Another television viewing term to watch out for in 2014 would be “hate-watch”, which means tuning in to a particular show purely in order to slag if off on Twitter.

By this time next year you might plausibly tweet, for example, the following: “Binge-hate-watching Homeland on my phablet #TVgeek.”

A tale of two dictionaries: the words according to the Collins and Oxford dictionaries

Collins

Word of the year, 2013

  • geek - a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject

Runners-up

  • twerking: moving the hips up and down as part an erotically suggestive dance. A blend of “twist” and “jerk”
  • bitcoin: a digital currency  exchanged by users of the internet
  • phablet: a hand-held computer that is larger than a smartphone but smaller than a tablet computer
  • Plebgate: a public scandal in which cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell is alleged to have insulted police on duty in Downing Street by calling them “plebs”
  • fracker: a person or organisation involved in the extraction of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing
  • cybernat: a supporter of Scottish independence who is active on online forums
  • thigh gap: a gap between the top of the legs when a person stands with the feet together
  • olinguito: an animal of the raccoon family, living in the cloud forests of Colombia and Ecuador
  • Black Friday: the day after the US holiday of Thanksgiving, considered by retailers as the start of the Christmas shopping season
  • payday lending: the practice  of making short-term loans to people who are expected to repay them from their future earnings
  • Harlem Shake: an internet craze in which people perform a comic sketch involving wild dancing

Oxford

Word of the year, 2013

  • selfie: a photograph that one  has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website

Runners-up

  • bedroom tax: a reduction in the amount of housing benefit paid to a claimant if the property they are renting is judged to have more bedrooms than is necessary for the number of the people in the household, according to criteria set down by the government
  • binge-watch: to watch  multiple episodes of a  television programme in  rapid succession, typically  by means of DVDs or digital streaming
  • bitcoin: a digital currency in which transactions can be performed without the need  for a central bank
  • olinguito: a small furry mammal found in mountain forests in Colombia and Ecuador, the smallest member of the raccoon family
  • schmeat: a form of meat produced synthetically from biological tissue
  • showrooming: the practice of visiting a shop or shops in order to examine a product before buying it online at a lower price
  • twerk: dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance. (Origin: 1990s; probably an alteration of “work”.)
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