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Tripping the lexical fantastic – new words in 2014

As someone who's spent a huge chunk of their professional life thinking and writing about words, it often occurs to me how lucky I am to be working during the 21st century, which has got to be one of the most exciting and unique periods in the history of language change. The digital revolution has, as we've observed before, made language eminently visible – we can see it, hear it, discuss it and spread it around with unprecedented ease and speed. But for me, the really great by-product of all this is that words have now become a genuinely 'cool' thing – they're trendy, fun, a topic for dinner parties and TV chat shows. Lexicography is thankfully no longer the preserve of prescriptivist academics and experts, but something which the man on the street has taken ownership of, evaluating, discussing, and even recording words through crowd-sourced enterprises like Macmillan's Open Dictionary. And so, as we close the door on another year of language change and the tidal wave of new coinages observed by the community at large in 2014, it's perhaps interesting to evaluate which areas of our lives threw up the greatest flourishes of lexical innovation. Here are six suggestions …

lexicography is thankfully no longer the preserve of prescriptivist academics and experts, but something which the man on the street has taken ownership of, evaluating, discussing, and even recording words through crowd-sourced enterprises

1. We are what we eat – the culinary lexicon

New on the English-speaking menu in 2014 was kimchi, a spiced vegetable side dish which is as nutritious as it is delicious. Though it's been around since the early 17th century, the word quinoa crept out of the woodwork this year as people began to wake up to this grain's potential as a healthy alternative to rice and pasta. Those of us who prefer a liquid lunch were probably juicing in 2014, though personally, I think that enjoying the delights of a food rave (where you can pack away as many carbs as you fancy – yum!) is infinitely preferable to sipping green sludge through a straw. If you're particularly health-conscious, then you may have embraced the practice of clean eating, where you avoid consuming anything remotely processed, and there was also the possibility of a paleo diet, a regime based on Stone Age cuisine, presumably of minimal interest to vegetarians. If you do tend to buy your food in packets, then this year you could be reassured of its freshness via the bump mark, a tactile label which warns of imminent decay. No 2014 utensil drawer should now be complete without a spoonula, a flexible spoon/spatula hybrid, and in the cutlery department, there's also the added convenience of a spork, enabling us to shovel and stab in one seamless movement. When everything is eaten, however, and we're washing up those greasy dishes, we must be careful not to unwittingly enlarge the fatberg, that environmental demon of disposed fat which lurks in the sewer.

2. Join the conversation – the social media lexicon

Though it was hailed by some publishers as the word of 2013, selfie has risen to even dizzier heights this year, sparking a veritable avalanche of linguistic creativity which seems to have captured the public imagination regardless of age or level of engagement with electronic media. New additions to the selfie lexicon include legsie, a shared snapshot of holiday bliss, gelfie, a way of publicizing your efforts at the gym, couplie, one especially for you and your significant other, and duckface selfie, which features your best pout. And if manual dexterity is not your forte, you might consider purchasing a selfie stick to improve the results. Instagram became the photo-sharing application of choice this year, and like YouTube, Facebook, and others before it, secured the transition from brand name to verb. The term vaguebooking was a new recruit in the jargon of Facebook, describing a negative post which is deliberately unspecific about what, or more likely who, it refers to. Over in the Twittersphere, there was the not dissimilar phenomenon of the subtweet, a tweet about someone which deliberately omits their name. In these kind of discourse contexts economy is king, of course, so as well as initialisms such as BBFL (= best buddies for life) and OP (= original poster, aka: the person who said it first), we've this year also begun to see a preponderance of truncations ending in -s, e.g.: whatevs ('whatever'), obvs ('obviously'), adorbs ('adorable'). And if words, however short, just don't cut it anymore, then 2014 was the year that the emoji went mainstream – that cute little graphic which used to be the preserve of teenagers and the Japanese but is now a common adornment to any device incorporating a touch-screen keyboard.

3. Putting our feet up – the leisure lexicon

In 2014 we took being 'square-eyed' to a whole new level, gorging ourselves silly on consecutive episodes of our favourite programmes by binge-watching or chainwatching our way through the weekends. And it seems that one screen alone is no longer enough, as we increasingly engage in stacking, using a multitude of hand-held devices to browse the web or grab a social media fix whilst watching the TV. We could even combine the two, and throw out snippets of criticism or praise for a programme by live-tweeting or media meshing during the broadcast. If reading was more our thing, then the year introduced us to a new genre of crime fiction in chick noir, where classic 'chick' themes of love and romance are displaced by murder and deception. Such dark themes were prevalent on screen too, with a preponderance of dramas correspondingly dubbed Nordic noir (the Scandinavian variant) or Celtic noir (set in Ireland or the far reaches of Scotland or Wales). If you're more a sport than a literature fan, then 2014 was the year in which kabaddi made its international debut, introducing the western world to a cross between wrestling and playground tag. Music lovers were also introduced to the novelty genre of chap hop, where rap meets upper class stereotypes, though this was unlikely to be the soundtrack to twerking, an eyebrow-raising dance technique receiving disproportionate media attention. And for those of us who enjoy the great outdoors, 2014 gave us the comforting concept of the tech crèche, a place to deposit our beloved smartphones whilst enjoying an encounter with nature without the nagging intrusion of the electronic universe.

4. Money makes the world go around – the financial lexicon

After several years of economic doom and gloom characterized by words like downturn and austerity, 2014 seems to have given us a glimmer of positivity in the shape of the sharing economy, an informal business model enabling people to make money by sharing stuff, from musical instruments to parking spaces. The outlook continued to be grim for many families however, putting expressions such as the living wage firmly into the spotlight. At the opposite end of the financial spectrum, there were shady goings-on at the sharp end of investment via dark pools, where share prices were hidden from public view. Tax avoidance also seemed to be a recurring theme, characterized by expressions like tax inversion (in which big businesses move their headquarters to a place where tax is lower, but still mainly operate elsewhere) and double Irish (with a) Dutch sandwich, a mouthful which has nothing to do with whisky or bread, but describes a tax avoidance technique involving Irish/Dutch subsidiaries.

5. All things bright and beautiful – the natural world lexicon

2014 seems to have been a vintage year for the vocabulary of extreme weather. It all started in January when Canadian slumber was disturbed by frost quakes, deep loud sounds made when frozen earth cracks. This was all thought to be the fault of the polar vortex, Arctic winds causing bitterly cold conditions. Any North Americans who'd managed to dig out their car from the snow also had to contend with being the unintentional source of an ice missile, a chunk of compacted ice/snow flying from a vehicle, which could now incur a fine according to newly passed laws. The situation didn't even seem to improve by the spring, when reports of severe storms brought the word supercell into the global spotlight and gave wider currency to meteorological terms like mesocyclone, a very strong, upward current of air. Things were no better on the other side of the Atlantic, as record-breaking levels of rainfall in the UK caused a spike in the occurrence of sinkholes, alarmingly large cavities which suddenly appear in the ground and randomly swallowed up back gardens and central reservations. It wasn't all bad news in the natural world though, or indeed the universe, as astronomers got excited about a windfall discovery of exoplanets, planets lying outside of the Earth's solar system. And zoologists had their moment too, with an increase in the zonkey population, a zebra-donkey hybrid, and continued fuss about the olinguito, a newly-discovered South American mammal described as a cross between a cat and a teddy bear.

6. Two's company – the relationship lexicon

We were first introduced to the pro-footballer WAGs (= wives and girlfriends) back in 2004, but ten years later these tabloid magnets are still going strong, and as if the infiltration of the SWAGs (= summit wives and girlfriends) weren't enough, it now seems that since September's Ryder Cup they've also been gatecrashed by the GWAGs (= golf wives and girlfriends). Of course in 2014 this supporting role is not a female preserve, with the HABs (= husbands and boyfriends) also creeping further into the spotlight. Over in the virtual universe, we saw the first appearance of bae, an alleged abbreviation of 'babe' and handy unisex term of endearment for quick reference to a significant other. Sadly it seems that sticking with your other half long enough to witness the appearance of greys is not necessarily an indicator of marital bliss in 2014, statistics indicating a sharp rise in the number of retired couples opting to call it a day, affectionately known as silver splitters (or silver separators if they've not finalized a divorce). Of course the termination of their relationship could not only be amicable, but also herald the start of a new, exciting and much better life if the mature twosome take inspiration from celebrity this year and elect to consciously uncouple.

So there it is – a brief romp through some of the domains which have seen a more significant degree of neologising in 2014. If you're still with me at this point and I therefore haven't fallen into the dreaded trap of TL;DR, then I'll quit while I'm ahead and wish everyone a very Happy Christmas – here's to a lexically prosperous 2015!

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

In previous years …

  • 2013: A decade of BuzzWords
  • 2011: New words in 2011 – a year in words
  • 2010: The twelve words of Christmas
  • This article was first published on 23rd December 2014.

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