Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
WOTY Dumpster Fire
Dumpster fire is Word of the Year for the American Dialect Society. Really? Dumpster fire?
Maybe I’m just out of the loop. I was surprised by “surreal” being the word of the year for Merriam Webster too. I usually love the word of the year chosen by the members of the American Dialect Society (more below). But somehow I just can’t get “dumpster fire.” Lots of other great words made the list in different categories. The complete list is always fun to browse, and we’ll check it out below.
The American Dialect Society (ADS for short) is an organization for people interested in the English language, Including linguists and teachers but also dictionary makers, historians, writers, and editors--anybody who loves American English, especially American dialects. The organization has been around since 1889, and its members have been choosing words of the year since 1990. I’ve been a member since before my first presentation to its members in 1986. Somehow I let my membership lapse in recent years, but I’ve already corrected that oversight.
In a lively debate at its conference every year (now that would make a great live stream), the members argue for their favorite words. The nominees for word of the year are the winners in each of the other categories.
The press release lists all the nominees in each category, vote tallies, and winners from this year’s debates.
Here is this year’s set of nominees for Word of the Year (vote tallies come after each word; where there's a slash there was a run-off vote)
WORD OF THE YEAR
You see that “post-truth” was one nominee, and it was the word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries. Given those choices, I think I might have voted for “woke,” which I think is an especially creative and meaningful word that had extra significance this past year.
I’m okay with losing a vote, But I feel left out that I don't understand “dumpster fire” better. Trying to get it, I found a helpful post about the phrase by Mark Liberman on the always fascinating Language Log blog from six months ago. He explains that the phrase has been used metaphorically in sports writing for years. There it means a disastrous performance. Now it has spread to commentary on politics and culture and apparently on our spectacle and low points of the past election year in the US.
Besides the fact that I hadn’t heard the expression much myself, I think my confusion about it is that a dumpster fire is not especially disastrous or chaotic but instead matters very little. You’re just burning garbage, after all, and in a nice metal box that will safely contain the fire (see image above, for example). So where’s the disaster or chaos in that?
But I recognize that I’m being too literal in the face of this metaphorical use.
Liberman explains it well, I think
“The idea seems to be that you start with a large steel box full of garbage, and then you set it on fire, and the result is a cheap spectacle that combines the properties of arson and garbage.”
As a word to describe this past year, in the US at least, I can see a lot of the flame being about garbage and a lot of spectacle with little real effect. So dumpster fire it is. Words and their meanings spread across groups and over time, so I imagine a year from now I'll feel foolish that I didn't get the common expression "dumpster fire."
Still, I had an easier time understanding ADS words of the year in the past. Here are some of my favorites. Notice how they reflect what was going on in the US that year:
2015 “they” singular gender-neutral pronoun; also most useful word that year
2009 tweet (there is a time lag between a word becoming popular and making it into the ADS competition)
2008 bailout (Gee, I wonder what was going on in these years?)
2002 weapons of mass destruction or WMD
2001 9-11, 9/11, or September 11
1992 Not! (yes, that annoying addition to any positive statement, as in “This year’s WOTY is a great choice—Not!”)
You get the picture. The list is a lot of fun to browse, if you’re curious or a word nerd, like me.
When you’re browsing, check out some of the fun categories, like most creative word, most useful, most unnecessary, most outrageous, and most euphemistic. New categories have been created for hashtags and emojis. We communicate through these meaningful symbols, after all, so we might as well recognize them as words.
From this year’s lists, I especially like
POLITICAL WORD OF THE YEAR
Maybe “nasty woman” will be only a phrase of the moment, but I’ve sure seen it a lot on T-shirts, #’s and coffee cups. And it’s fun.
Here’s a winner I can agree with. “laissez-fairydust” hah! Very clever. I tried to find the first use of the term or some reference to who created it, but all I was able to find at first was its being repeated in identical critical “news” stories on Koch College from late 2016. They all quoted the same sentence, obviously from a common source:
“Yes, this “grassroots” outfit has been set up by the gabillionaire Koch boys to train cadres of right-wing corporatists to spread their ideological laissez-fairydust across the land.”
But then I hit a gold mine! I found a song entitled “Laissez Fairy Dust” recorded by Timothy Bearly on soundcloud three years ago! This song explains it all, pulling no punches. The song’s refrain includes the lines
And so the rich say gummint get off our backs
They’re all lies, lies, lies, It’s all lies, lies, lies behind their rise
Gotta try, try, try to change the world and reach for the sky
This is the same artist who recorded songs entitled, “Some of my best friends are capitalists,” “Privatize Everything,” and my personal favorite, “ Don’t let the smell of their cologne mask the smell of their bullshit.” He's worth a listen.
But back to words!
“Laissez-fairy-dust” would not make it into the next category, but two terms I’ve blogged about show up, alt-right and locker-room banter.
EUPHEMISM OF THE YEAR
I must not be totally out of the loop if I’ve commented on two of the four nominees. I must also find euphemisms pretty interesting (I do).
And the last category that I’ll share shows the fun that ADS members can have with the annual event
WTF WORD OF THE YEAR
So I may not be a big fan of this year’s Word of the Year winner. But I am a big fan of the American Dialect Society and of their annual competition.
For those of you who like to read about American English and don’t mind some scholarly talk, the ADS also publishes a great journal entitled American Speech. It’s a rich source for language nerds like me. The most recent issue has an article entitled “Why Does Canadian English Use try to but British English Use try and? Let's Try and/to Figure It Out.”
Is that fun or what? If it makes you want to read the article, check out the journal.
Feel free to comment with your own votes for word of the year. Maybe I’m way off and full of hooey about “dumpster fire.” Feel free to let me know
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