In 2015, I sang a lot of karaoke, I hugged Paul F. Tompkins, I spoke at DSNA, I became an aunt, I visited the Internet Archive, I found historical gems in Tom Dalzell’s slang library, I packed stickers with Erin McKean, and I thought a lot about words.
I started a list of word of the year candidates last June when Caitlyn Jenner dramatically increased the global visibility of trans and nonbinary people. With new awareness comes new opportunities for allies to listen and promote more considerate terms in conversation. I added she, preferred pronouns, passing, cis, self-identify, and gender-affirming surgery to the list to reflect that monumental shift in awareness.
Candidate words like #staywoke, privilege, microaggression, safe space, and depraved heart murder reflect the continued need for the #blacklivesmatter movement. Wondaland Records’ electrifying protest song Hell You Talmbout rose up in August, which records the names of the dead and gives a mighty voice to the hashtag #SayHerName.
There was cause for humanity to celebrate with the court decision behind #LoveWins and the discovery of Homo Naledi remains in South Africa, a new human species that was formally named in September. #Ham4Ham shows stopped traffic and my productivity in the fall, especially after finding an archive of all the videos. New slang flowed into the mainstream, including Netflix and chill, on fleek, smol, basic, and thirsty.
At the end of 2015, professional lexical organizations chose identity, singular they, -ism, 😂, and captain’s call as their respective words of the year. (Click to see a list of all past Word of the Year winners). Encyclopedia Briannica has chosen to define 2015 with two words: one to represent the shifting of opinions in professional circles, and one to commemorate personal events in 2015.
Professional Word of the Year: Singular THEY
When I am a freelance copy editor, I flow between many styles and levels of formality, tailoring my approach to help the individual or company reach their intended audience with intention and clarity. Across all the genres, though, I do not tolerate the default he pronoun. “The first player goes. He rolls the dice. He moves the token.” Unacceptable. I recognize that ‘he or she’ quickly becomes bulky, and that ‘it’ is disrespectful to human life, but those would only be obstacles if English didn’t already have they. It is a genderless pronoun that includes all people, that gives them respect but does not exclude in order to do so. If used carelessly, it could make speech less clear, but that is true of all words in all sentences.
We already use they to describe people we don’t know well, as in “Someone at the gas station parked awkwardly. I asked them to move and they were rude about it.” The difference now is that some individuals are choosing they/them as their preferred pronouns. You could know someone intimately for 20 years and say “Have you met my friend, Mal? They sang me a song on my birthday.”
Last April, a flurry of pro-singular they tweets appeared during and after the annual American Copy Editors Society (ACES) meeting. Their approval of the pronoun as a gender-free solution meansthe form will appear more and more consistently, and unconsciously influence what people consider to be standard, reinforcing the choice as it becomes more and more commonplace.
The momentous thing about singular they coming to the forefront is that most Words of the Year are content words (adjectives, nouns and verbs) that somehow encapsulate the mood of the year. Content words pop in and out of language all the time, getting modified and replaced by newer content words as they lose their novelty and potency. Singular they, and because x a few years ago, buck that trend because they are function words (pronouns, prepositions, particles and conjunctions). Function words are the basic foundational parts of language that give structure to sentences (function words in italics).
If you try reading the Lord’s Prayer in Middle English or Old English, the spelling will throw you off, but you’ll be able to pick out function words like and, we, our, us, of, on, and to, because they haven’t changed much in 1000 years. That’s why this shift of approval and need for a genderless pronoun is so exciting. They has been around for a long time, but because of the growing understanding that there is a difference between gender identity, sex, and sexual orientation, its ambiguous features are suddenly exactly what we need. This shift to singular they is the Hale-Bopp function word change of your lifetime.
Personal Word of the Year: #STEVENBOMB
Through 99 Percent Invisible, Octothorpean puzzles, and Twitter hashtags, octothorpe ran a strong campaign to become my personal word of 2015. In the end, it was overshadowed by a word associated with my person of the year.
To begin with, Steven Universe is a gorgeously well-planned cartoon that premiered in late 2013 and wrapped up its first season in March 2015. There have only been 26 more 11-minute episodes since then. They now air sporadically in unexpected groupings that the Crewniverse itself calls Stevenbombs.
The term comes from the episode “Garnet’s Universe” in which Steven ambushes the stoic but loving Garnet from above, declaring”STEVENBOMB!” and landing softly on her square head. I live and die by Stevenbombs: waiting for their announcement, absorbing the new revelations and songs, and realizing three episodes in that five is not going to be enough.
Last January, molecular biologist and board game evangelist Steven Tan resolved to play all 270 of his table top games during 2015. He chronicled that journey on Instagram, and completed the challenge in early December. Last January, I started dating that very same Steven Tan.
He dropped from the rafters like Steven Universe into my weekly game night, bursting into song and quickly becoming someone I looked forward to solving puzzles with. His intelligent and charming presence in 2015 was an unplanned joy that amplified my accomplishments and gave them greater meaning.
He’s kept me grounded, he’s a sounding board for my errant language thoughts, and we’d make a great Only Connect team if the references weren’t so exceedingly British.
He must be a lexicographer, because he defined 2015 for me. Now that’s a pickup line.
For Steven Universe, Steven Tan, and the hope and good times they represent, my personal word for 2015 is #Stevenbomb. Here’s to 2016.