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Announcing the Oxford Dictionaries “Word” of the Year 2015

Announcing the Oxford Dictionaries “Word” of the Year 2015

17 November 2015

Today Oxford Dictionaries announces the emoji Emoji Tears of Joy ,  commonly known as ‘Face with Tears of Joy’, as its “Word” of the Year for 2015.

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word or expression chosen to reflect the passing year in language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team reviews candidates for word of the year and then debates their merits, eventually choosing one that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. This year, instead of choosing a traditional word, Oxford Dictionaries has chosen a pictograph, the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji, to reflect the sharp increase in popularity of emoji across the world in 2015.

Although emoji have been a staple of texting teens for some time, emoji culture exploded into the global mainstream over the past year. Whether it was Hillary Clinton soliciting feedback in emoji or on-going debates about the skin tone of smiley faces, emoji have come to embody a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.

Casper Grathwohl, President of Oxford Dictionaries, says: “You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication.  It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps—it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully. As a result emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders. When Andy Murray tweeted out his wedding itinerary entirely in emoji, for example, he shared a subtle mix of his feelings about the day directly with fans around the world. It was highly effective in expressing his emotions.”

This year Oxford University Press partnered with leading mobile technology business SwiftKey to explore frequency and usage statistics for some of the most popular emoji across the world. ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ came out a clear winner. According to SwiftKey’s research, ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ was the most heavily used emoji globally in 2015. Their research shows that the character comprised 20% of all emoji used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of all emoji used in the US. This compared to 4% and 9% respectively in 2014. In the US the next most popular emoji was ‘Face Throwing a Kiss,’ comprising 9% of all usage.

“Emoji culture has become so popular that individual characters have developed their own trends and stories,” notes Grathwohl. “They can serve as insightful windows through which to view our cultural preoccupations, so it seemed appropriate to reflect this emoji obsession by selecting one as this year’s “word” of the year. We felt particularly comfortable selecting ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ because of the frequency and usage data that SwiftKey was able to provide. Oxford’s word of the year has always been backed by real-time language analysis, and our selection for 2015 is no exception. SwiftKey’s data provided the basis on which we were able to interpret and debate the significance of what a particular emoji says about global culture in 2015. Not only did we see a dramatic spike in usage of ‘Face with Tears of Joy,’ we felt the character captured a sense playfulness and intimacy that embodies emoji culture itself.”

Sarah Rowley, Head of Communications, EMEA, at SwiftKey, says: “It seems a fitting end to 2015 that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is an emoji rather than a traditional word. It has truly been the year of the emoji. For many their appeal lies in how they allow people to express themselves, regardless of the language they are speaking in. The sheer volume and range of data from SwiftKey’s emoji report goes some way to demonstrate how each person uses emoji in a way that is entirely personal to them.”

The word emoji 

Oxford Dictionaries lexicographers have also seen a sharp increase in the use of the word emoji itself in 2015. Emoji is a loanword from Japanese defined as ‘a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication’. It was used in English-language Japanese publications as early as 1997 but remained rare outside of Japanese contexts until 2011, when Apple launched iOS 5 with emoji support. Since then, usage of the word emoji has soared as English speakers have embraced the symbols to supplement communication in texts and online, more than tripling from 2014 to 2015; social media rejoiced this year when the launch of Unicode 8 introduced more diverse skin tones, along with long-requested symbols such as the mosque, the cricket bat, and the taco. 

The similarity of the Japanese word emoji to the English word emoticon makes it easy for English speakers to remember, but the resemblance is entirely coincidental: emoji is derived ultimately from the Japanese words e (picture) and moji (letter, character), whereas emoticon is from the English words emotion and icon.

The Word of the Year 2015 shortlist

In addition to the Word of the Year itself, Oxford Dictionaries staff have put together a shortlist of notable words that have gained linguistic currency during 2015. These range across a variety of subjects, from global politics and current affairs, to technology and popular culture.

Oxford’s lexicographic expertise and experience put us in a unique position to understand and track how people express themselves. In particular, we are able to analyse the Oxford Dictionaries Corpus, a database now comprising over 7 billion words for which we collect around 150 million words of real current English each month.
In alphabetical order, the shortlisted words for the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015 are:

ad blocker, noun:

A piece of software designed to prevent advertisements from appearing on a web page.

Recent studies have shown increasing use of ad blockers by Internet users, prompting a flood of concern in the media about the viability of free digital content funded by advertising. Accordingly, we’ve seen a 24-fold increase in the frequency of the word ad blocker since this time last year, as online commentators ponder whether the future of the Web as we know it is in jeopardy.

Brexit, noun:

A term for the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

In the early part of 2015, the European portmanteau on everyone’s lips was Grexit (a blend of Greek and exit), referring to the potential withdrawal of Greece from the eurozone. However, a new bailout agreement was reached in July, making Grexit less likely and causing use of the word to diminish. Meanwhile, use of the similarly formed word Brexit began to increase, as the Conservative party won victory in the UK’s May general election made a referendum on the UK’s future in the EU likely in 2017.

Dark Web, noun:

The part of the World Wide Web that is only accessible by means of special software, allowing users and website operators to remain anonymous or untraceable

Whereas the term Deep Web refers to the parts of the Internet that cannot be found using search engines, Dark Web refers specifically to websites which use encryption tools to hide the identities of hosts and users of a site, often in order to facilitate illegal activities. The term has been growing in popularity in media coverage of cybercrime.

lumbersexual, noun:

a young urban man who cultivates an appearance and style of dress (typified by a beard and checked shirt) suggestive of a rugged outdoor lifestyle

The word lumbersexual—bridging the vast gap between lumberjack and metrosexual—was coined as early as 2008, as beards and checked shirts began to be de rigeur among urban males, but it wasn’t popularized until late 2014. Usage was high in early 2015 and now seems to be plateauing. The word metrosexual itself turns 21 years old this month; it’s too early to predict whether its successor will last as long.

on fleek, adjective (usually in phrase on fleek):

extremely good, attractive, or stylish

On June 21, 2014, a Vine user called “Peaches Monroee”— in offline life a young woman named Kayla Newman from the Chicago, USA area—uploaded a video in which she approvingly described her eyebrows as “on fleek”. Her video went viral, and so did the phrase, surging on social media and making its way into the lyrics of songs by the likes of Nicki Minaj, among others. It showed up on Oxford’s monitor corpus for the first time in October 2014, and peaked there just a few months later, in January 2015. That type of steep rise is often followed by a precipitous fall, as a novel slang word loses cachet and is abandoned, but on fleek has continued to register relatively steady use this year, suggesting that English speakers are not yet ready to let it go.

refugee, noun:

A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

The crisis of displaced people around the globe has been one of the biggest news stories of 2015. Oxford’s language monitoring corpus has shown the word refugee increasing by 110% and migrant by 158% this year, compared with the same period in 2014, and considerable attention has been focused on the important distinctions in meaning between the two terms: a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster, whereas a migrant is a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions. At a time when heightened rhetoric about immigration coexists with a severe humanitarian crisis, the choice of words by politicians or journalists when referring to displaced people can have serious consequences.

sharing economy, noun:

An economic system in which assets or services are shared between private individuals, either free or for a fee, typically by means of the Internet.

The Internet has facilitated a number of services which are collectively known as the “sharing economy”, whereby assets or services are shared between private individuals, either for free or for a fee. Usage of the term has grown steadily, but there is controversy about its meaning, with questions growing about whether so-called sharing is sometimes simply a method by which corporations avoid officially hiring employees. Some see the so-called sharing economy as being responsible for the advent of a “gig economy”, in which people make ends meet by arranging freelance work over the Internet rather than working in traditional full-time jobs (either voluntarily, or because no other work is available).

they (singular), pronoun:

Used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.

The pronoun they is one of the most common words in English, but it has been thrust into the spotlight recently with reference to people with non-binary gender identities (that is, people who identify as neither male nor female). They has been used with singular antecedents of an unknown or unspecified gender (as in “everyone does their best”) for centuries (the OED records it from as early as 1375), and although the usage is sometimes criticized, many publications accept it as an alternative to the cumbersome formula “he or she” or the generic use of masculine pronouns, which is now often regarded as sexist. The extension of epicene they and their to refer to specific individuals (as in, “Alex is bringing their laptop”) is a more recent development. Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female, and media outlets and other public institutions are increasingly respecting  such preferences by referring to people as they wish to be identified. Dozens of epicene pronouns have been proposed through the years, including ne, ze, shi, and co, but while it is possible that one or more of them will someday achieve widespread acceptance, at the moment singular they has the upper hand.