The esteemed minds at Oxford Dictionaries have unveiled their choice for 2015 Word of the Year, and for the first time ever, it's not even a word. It's an emoji. It seems strange, since if anyone would know what the definition of the word word is, you'd think it would be dictionary editors. Alas, the publishers behind the series of dictionaries and other academic journals have selected the Face with Tears of Joy emoji as the emblem of our collective cultural nattering over the past 12 months. They could have done worse.
'Although emoji have been a staple of texting teens for some time, emoji culture exploded into the global mainstream over the past year,' Oxford explained in a press release. 'Emoji have come to embody a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.'
This much is hard to argue with. Whether that's necessarily a positive reflection on our culture or a negative one probably depends on how seriously you take these sort of things. At long last, the prescriptivists among us are probably thinking right now that the demise of the English language we've all been conspiratorially plotting for years has arrived. The rest of us are probably thinking something along the lines of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
The decay of written language may or may not be an eventuality. But despite the numerous encomiums for the written word you're likely to see tweeted in reaction to this news, it's not the fact that an emoji was chosen that's alarming, it's that Oxford felt obliged to make an attention-grabbing stunt choice in the first place... again. That tells us more about the state of language and how it is spread. That's a distinction with a fine point, but remember, the robust reputation of Oxford to the contrary, we're not talking about an official annunciation here from the Infallible Lexicographer's Council. It's just a press release from a company who sells books and wants you to look at its website.
Consider this from the FAQ about how the WOTY is chosen: 'The final Word of the Year selection team is made up of lexicographers and consultants to the dictionary team, and editorial, marketing, and publicity staff.' Something tells me those latter two groups have begun to assert more of an influence over the past few years.
Indeed, as Oxford writes of the choice of the emoji, a study with technology company SwiftKey found that the Face with Tears of Joy was the most used emoji in 2015, making up 20 percent of all emoji used in the U.K., and 17 percent in the U.S. But, as they also point out, there are no plans to add the emoji itself to the dictionary, so what are we even talking about here?
A look back at the last couple Words of the Year brings up a pretty big shift in the way they are chosen, one that just so happens to coincide with the era of shareability. Last year's choice was 'vape,' while 2013's was 'selfie.' In 2012, the U.S. choice was 'gif,' while the U.K. choice was 'omnishambles.' Omnishambles? I don't even think the dictionary people know what that one means. Prior to that, the winners were words like 'repudiate,' 'hypermiling,' 'bovvered,' and 'credit crunch,' none of which are exactly going to set content farmers running to their laptops to churn out a piece about What The Word of the Year Means About Society Today.
Instead, what we've got here is simply a business concern hoping to drum up attention for its product through a goofy listicle. In other words, every single day of the year online for everyone. If you need further evidence for how silly an endeavor this whole enterprise is, look no further than the shortlist for the rest of the 2015 nominees, which includes such lasting gems as 'lumbersexual,' a fake trend with about a three-day blog shelf life. Despite what it says in the press release, the word of the year for 2015 is the same one it's been every year for the past few years: 'traffic.'
Words: Luke O'Neil