Each year, the esteemed folks at the Oxford Dictionaries crown a "Word of the Year." The selection process is official business, involving a research program that collects "around 150 million words of current English in use each month, using automated search criteria to scan new web content," which allows the dictionary's lexicographers to identify "new and emerging words on a daily basis and examine the shifts that occur in geography, register, and frequency of use."
Like I said, serious stuff. But while the available usage statistics are taken into account, they are not the deciding factor. Instead, the Word of the Year is chosen because, in the opinion of Oxford Dictionaries' lexicographers and consultants, it is "judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance."
So what word best reflects our collective ethos, mood or preoccupations this year?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Oxford Dictionaries International Word of 2014: vape.
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A suitably relaxed word, vape can either be used as a verb, meaning "to inhale or exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device" or as a noun defining it as an "electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device."
So why did it prevail over runners-up, a formidable list that includes bae (noun: "used as a term of endearment for one’s romantic partner"), normcore (noun: "a trend in which ordinary, unfashionable clothing is worn as a deliberate fashion statemen"t) and slacktivism (noun: "do-gooding actions regarded as requiring little time or investment, like signing an online petition)?
First-off, the use of the word has more than doubled since 2013, according the official announcement from Oxford Dictionaries. But that's not all; The vape was also selected for its cultural relevance, reflecting both e-cigarette's momentous rise in popularity along with dramatically shifting attitudes and policies towards marijuana use (weed is now legal in Colorado and Washington, and will soon be in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.)
“As vaping has gone mainstream, with celebrities from Lindsay Lohan to Barry Manilow giving it a go, and with growing public debate on the public dangers and the need for regulation, so the language usage of the word ‘vape’ and related terms in 2014 has shown a marked increase," Judy Pearsall, Editorial Director for Oxford Dictionaries, told the BBC when asked to explain the choice.
It's a great quote – it covers so many bases: Lindsey Lohan, regulation, usage statistics – and one that somehow perfectly sums up how I envision Oxford Dictionaires' lexicographers and consultants go about selecting The Word of the Year, namely a mix of statistic crunching and scientific discussions of 'what's hot on social media.'
Past Word of the Year winners confirm my suspicions. Do these words truly sum up the years they're meant to represent? For instance, does the word "refudiate," a combination of 'refuse' and repudiate' made famous by Sarah Palin, define 2010? Of course not. But even if the Word of the Year quickly fades into obscurity -- actually, particularly if it does -- the fact that it was selected in the first place captures a distinct moment in our culture as reflected through a group of lexicographers and dictionary consultants.
And who doesn't like that?