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Quiz: Test Your Word of the Year Knowledge

L.L. Wohlwend

Staff Writer

L.L. Wohlwend is living near the southern shores of Lake Superior. While she's held many different jobs over the years--waitress, library clerk, lab technician, newspaper reporter, high school teacher, and college adjunct among them--she's always been a reader first. You can find her on Twitter @llwohlwend.

Gather ye wordsmiths, ye logophiles and ye plain ol’ word nerds. It’s time to test your linguistic mettle with a Word of the Year quiz.

Each year, lexicographers, editors, and other fine folks at various institutions decide which word has become the spirit of the times. Words like, bailout, Not!, podcast, geek, blog, justice, bovvered, and carbon-neutral have all been prior Words of the Year.

Some go on to be used again and again (app comes to mind); others are forgotten nearly as soon as they’ve been noted. (Anyone remember hypermiling? Not so much.)

With well-known dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary announcing their choices, you may not be aware that the American ritual began in 1991 with an organization called the American Dialect Society. Modeled after Time’s Person of the Year, Word of the Year has taken off and become an annual word buff’s tradition.

Though I should note: the Word of the Year doesn’t have to be a full word. Words of the Year can be parts of words, phrases, or even vocabulary terms.

In fact, a 2015 winner was the suffix “-ism.” That year, Merriam-Webster noticed that seven of their highest ranking words had the suffix in common: socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, terrorism.

Word of the Year is Worldwide

The Word of the Year isn’t just an English-language tradition. The idea is global.

In Japan, for example, there’s a kanji of the year. The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation has been holding a national ballot since 1995. People cast their votes and the winner is announced on Kanji Day, December 12, each year.

The 2020 winner was 密 (“mitsu”), which means close or dense. The word was used in “calls to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus,” according to The Japan Times. “The character garnered 28,401 votes, or 13.65%, out of the 208,025 cast in a poll.”

In Norway, a national language council called Språkrådet decides the annual word. This year, it was koronaen or The Corona, another pandemic-related choice. But 2019’s winner was “climate-roar,” or Klimabrølet, reflecting global concerns about climate change.

The Categories Get Bigger

Over the years, the American Dialect Society has expanded their word categories. In addition to Word of the Year, there’s “Most Euphemistic Words,” like Netflix and Chill and “Most Likely to Succeed,” like ghost, which is to cut off all communication with someone. One of my favorite categories is “Most Unneccesary.” It gives us such notables as baeless, which means you’re lacking a partner, and sea kittens, or what PETA calls fish.

So, how well do you know your Words of the Year? Are you ready to give it a try? If you’re interested in a more in-depth look at Word of the Year, you can also check out my article Word of the Year: A Bellwether for Cultural Change. Otherwise, get cracking at that quiz!