How Words Paint the Trends: New Words of 2013

Originally posted on Forbes.com.

Last week’s announcement of the newest additions to Oxford Dictionaries Online (the esteemed Oxford University Press’s free online dictionary) set media commentators and the social Web on fire. People smiled at their favorites, made fun of others, and began debating what it all says about our culture and the collective intelligence at this moment in digital-age history.

Let the linguists and the lexicographers duke it out about the future of language. I’m not going to say whether the shifts in recognized and acceptable speech are harbingers of doom or sights of a valuable evolution. What’s of much more interest to me as a trendspotter is how this collection of a few dozen words illustrates so many of the trends that are defining life now and will define it for years to come.

We are all telling stories, all the time. And the memes (to use a word that itself has lately become trendy) are how we remember stories well told. The memes that make it into the official lexicon are the best way of telling the truest, most lasting stories about what people care about now. Trends are often about the right word for the times.

Of course, one of today’s big trends is real-time commentary and constant sharing, coupled with a collective need to be part of the conversation and add something witty at all times. There have always been words and trends that “stuck” and defined their era; what has changed is the pace of the social frenzy around them: YOLO was in and out in a blink, and twerking came and went before I could twist over for my computer, let alone yank it open.

The online media echo chamber has had a field day with the Oxford announcement, as seen in witty parodies such as Derek Thompson’s clever “memo” on TheAtlantic.com incorporating all 44 new words. (My favorite line is the kicker: “TL;DRSrsly, this is the future of language. Squee.”)

Humor aside, that sentence illustrates a handful of the major trends drawn by the list of words: the mainstreaming of abbreviations in this text-centric age; the time crunch we all feel with the pressure to be always on; and the bluntness and snark—even rudeness, some would argue—that have invaded our culture.

TL;DR is “too long; didn’t read,” which would have been unthinkable to say to someone five years ago. But now it’s a common, acceptable (linguistically and socially) response to a long email, article or blog post. It’s IM shorthand writ large, a reaction to feeling we can’t keep up—and terrifically blunt. Srsly is a snappy, one-eyebrow-raised compression of “seriously,” and squee at least is somewhat positive, an expression of excitement meant to sound like “squeal” and “whee.” Here we go.

Some of the other abbreviations and acronyms included FOMO (do I really need to spell it out?), apols (apologies), FIL (father-in-law), LDR (long-distance relationship, something we’re seeing more of in this era of online dating) and vom (vomit, which brings to mind “gag me with a spoon” from 30 years ago).

Yes, as many of the commenters pointed out, many of these “new” words seem like such old hat they’re hardly worth mentioning. How many thousands of articles have been written about fear of missing out? Still, the recognition by Oxford shows that the idea of it is here to stay.

Then there are the terms that reveal clearly how much technology and social media have invaded our lives, and how fuzzy the lines between the “real world” and the virtual world of online have become. (Look for them to become even blurrier as Google Glass gets picked up by more than just the first wave of super-early adopters). There’s phablet, the oversize smartphone that’s somewhere between phone and tablet; selfie, the ubiquitous self-portrait taken for Facebook or Instagram; geek chic, for the fact that we think all this (and especially Google Glass) is cool; unlike, as in showing displeasure on a social media site; and click and collect, for a new means of online shopping. No wonder so many of us are longing for a digital detox.

Although it’s just one term, seeing omnishambles on the list is interesting because it reveals a growing fascination with all things British (especially the language). The clearest example of that, of course, was all the attention paid to the birth of Prince George and the emergence of Kate Middleton as a trendsetter in everything from fashion choices to birth announcements made online. But it’s also evident in the popularity of U.K. gossip websites like Mirror Online and the inclusion of omnishambles, Oxford Dictionaries’ U.K. Word of the Year last year, used to mean “a comprehensively mismanaged situation, characterized by a shambolic string of blunders.” (Sadly, American events of the past few months have provided ample opportunities to use the word.)

The new words related to food and fashion are less inspiring, and many of them don’t seem particularly new or much like trends. Guac(amole) and blondies have been staples of the American diet for years now, just as pixie cuts and chandelier earrings have been in fashion magazines for decades.

Two other words that should have made the list (and I suspect will soon) are from the social goodness space. The United Nations Foundation’s Aaron Sherinian (a friend and client), an organizer of the Social Good Summit, has been promoting the term (and concept) philanthroteen. Describing the new generation of 14- to 18-year-olds who are getting involved with online causes and advocating on global issues through charities and activism, it has appeared in Crain’s, the Huffington Post, and, more important, in the tweets and posts of young people.

The upcoming Social Good Summit is introducing keynote listening, which Sherinian says is a concept that required the organizers to create a new word to describe it: Instead of inviting luminaries to come onto a stage and talk at people, it invites influential people to come to an event, listen to the entrepreneurs and emerging leaders, absorb social media’s reaction, engage with audience members and then, in the moment, react to what they are hearing.

If twerk and YOLO are even remembered years from now, they’ll still make us cringe. Philanthroteen and keynote listening are words we’ll look back on in the future that will make us feel proud.

Sep 6, 2013 | Posted by in Mass Media, Social Media, Trends | 0 comments

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