It’s probably a little too early to be talking about New Year’s resolutions but if you’re thinking of starting 2015 by kicking smoking in favour of ‘vaping’, you should know that to vape is profoundly 2014. So much so, in fact, that Oxford Dictionaries editors have just announced the term as their international Word of the Year (WOTY).

Flexible enough to serve as both a noun (‘an electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device’) and a verb (to ‘inhale and exhale the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device’), the word turns out to predate even the invention of e-cigarettes. That occurred in China in 2003, but the word’s first known usage came 20 years before, when an author named Rob Stepney, writing in the pages of the now defunct UK magazine New Society, described a hypothetical device being explored at the time: “an inhaler or ‘non-combustible’ cigarette, looking much like the real thing, but… delivering a metered dose of nicotine vapour. (The new habit, if it catches on, would be known as vaping.)”

And catch on it did. In the past five years, e-cigarettes have grown into a multi-million dollar industry, and language has kept pace nimbly. The word began appearing regularly in mainstream sources in around 2009, and according to Oxford Dictionaries editors, its usage increased sixfold last year. In 2014, it has more than doubled again. English now has a vaping lexicon that extends to vape pens, vape shops and vaporiums.

Of course, while the WOTY must be a word or expression that has become prominent or notable during the year, it can’t be so thoroughly of its time as to look faddish in years to come. Explaining their choice, Judy Pearsall, Editorial Director for Oxford Dictionaries, indicated that this year’s pick wouldn’t be going up in a puff of smoke any time soon: “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.”

It triumphed over a shortlist of five other words: bae (a term of endearment for a significant other, originating in African-American English), budtender (one whose job is to serve customers in a cannabis dispensary or shop), contactless (as in payment made by tapping a credit card, say), indyref (the referendum on Scottish independence), normcore (the trend for everyday, unfashionable clothing worn as a deliberate fashion statement), and – my own favourite – slacktivism (do-gooding actions regarded as requiring little time or investment, like signing an online petition).

Words and pixels

Oxford Dictionaries aren’t the only lexicographers to elect a WOTY. Just as the year’s end triggers limitless listicles (itself a newly minted addition to Oxford Dictionaries online), so word nerds like to go a step further, distilling the zeitgeist to a single mot juste. Between now and January will come picks from word-keepers including The American Dialect Society and The Global Language Monitor (GLM), while Chambers and Collins dictionaries have already revealed theirs: overshare and photobomb respectively.

Both their choices – along with the runners-up, which include bashtag and digital native – underscore the influence social media is wielding over our language, both through its demand for brevity and the ways in which it shapes our behaviour. Slacktivism, for instance, is generally demonstrated online – remember the ‘no makeup selfie’ and #bringbackourgirls? – and as the Oxford Dictionaries team note, indyref also began as a Twitter hashtag. Merriam-Webster hasn’t yet announced its WOTY but one of its new words for 2014 is hashtag, gamification being  another. Over at  Oxford Dictionaries , cyberespionage, subtweet, and clickbait can now be found – along, fittingly, with ‘time suck’.

Technology is also enhancing our abilities to monitor language’s evolution. Texas-based GLM uses algorithms to crawl the internet, the blogosphere, social media and some 300,000 print and electronic publications across the English-speaking world for words that are trending. Its WOTY won’t be announced until the end of November, but back in April, it revealed research that might rattle language-lovers. The word that was then coming out on top? Emoji – those maddeningly perky little icons used on social media in lieu of… words.

Here today, gone tomorrow?

Browsing previous WOTYs – whether selected by panels of esteemed experts, the public or robots – it becomes clear that in our chatter, we often miss the really big stuff. Whereas the American Dialect Society’s 2007 word, subprime, makes lasting sense, the year before it chose plutoed – to be demoted – which clearly hasn’t stood the test of time, adorkable (yes, a 2014 addition to the Collins dictionary) though it is. Then again, that’s the wondrous thing about language: it’s malleable enough that it can be transformed in an instant. Just as historians use it to meticulously narrate the past, so we toss it around in the present – dicing and splicing words, distorting it as life demands. The ease with which that’s accomplished – and the speed with which catchy neologisms can now go viral – means that not all words born this year will stay the course.

That’s where that arch-arbiter the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comes in. While its offspring, Oxford Dictionaries, focuses on modern meanings and usage, the OED is a historical dictionary, tracking how English and our way of using it has evolved over more than 1,000 years. It’s simultaneously a bulwark against faddy usage and a testament to our eternal ability, as English-speakers and writers and ‘tweeps’ (thank you, Merriam-Webster), to alter it, ensuring that it remains a living thing. As such, words are subjected to a lengthy audition process before they’re entered into the multi-volume work, though they then remain there for perpetuity. One of 2014’s ‘new’ words is hi-fi, which was first used in 1935. Vape, meanwhile, is still under consideration. Yet despite this rigorous admissions policy, the OED continues to grow four times a year; its most recent update alone, in September, contained 600 new words, phrases and senses.

With this in mind, there’s one other word-related announcement, due on Wednesday, that merits a mention: the results of Time Magazine’s annual word banishment poll, whose past ‘winners’ include OMG, YOLO and twerk. This year’s contest has been overshadowed by a decision to include among suggestions the word feminist (editors say they were simply critiquing the lazy way celebrity journalists use it), but also featured are influencer and – in their newest senses – basic (lacking in sophistication) and disrupt (to shake up sleepy industries, generally with the help of new technology). As purists throw up their dictionaries in despair, it’s worth remembering that if you’d asked Chaucer what he understood by the word ‘nice’ he’d have told you it meant ‘silly’.

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