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Language Evolution, 2013

The year in language. Cronut. Vape. Twerk. Sharknado. We’ll look at the language that went large in 2013.

Miley Cyrus performs on NBC's "Today" show on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 in New York. The pop star's dance moves lead to one of 2013's most widely-discussed words, "twerk." (AP)

Miley Cyrus performs on NBC’s “Today” show on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 in New York. The pop star’s dance moves lead to one of 2013′s most widely-discussed words, “twerk.” (AP)

Language is carved in stone of course, all over the place, but it never stays there. In the world, in our mouths, in our conversations that now move from text to speech to text again, it changes all the time. The language of 2013 had all-new formulations — sharknado — and grand, ancient words reassigned — @pontifex is now the Pope’s Twitter handle. We’ve had heavy rotation for “vape” and “twerk” and “Molly” and “deep state” and “haha” and “ROTFL.” “Lean in.” “Cronut.” And a new hybridizing of speech and text. #NewTerrain. This hour On Point: linguist John McWhorter on the year in language, 2013.

– Tom Ashbrook


John McWhorter, linguist, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and contributing editor at The New Republic. Author of “The Language Hoax: Why The World Looks The Same In Any Language,” “What Language Is (And What It Isn’t And What It Could Be),” “Our Magnificent Bastard Tonuge: The Untold Story of English” and “Defining Creole.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Republic: This American Dictionary Is Full of Words You’ve Never Heard Before — “We moderns process American English differently than women who wore slips, or the men who were warning them about their expsosure. These days, there is plenty of interest in non-standard language—but today, America slangs together more. Americanisms—geographically promiscuous items such as veggietwerkselfie, and ‘My bad!’—interest us more than regionalisms such as that people call smoking marijuana smoking out on the west coast but smoking up on the east.”

The Wall Street Journal: The Most Memorable Words of 2013 — “What’s the political word of the year? For months journalists couldn’t settle on how to describe the rollout of ObamaCare. ‘Failed,’ ‘disastrous,’ ‘unsuccessful.’ In the past few weeks they’ve settled on ‘botched.’ References to the botched rollout have appeared in this paper, The Hill, NBC, Fox, NPR, the New Republic, the Washington Post and other media outlets.”

The Boston Globe: Words of the Year: Where are they now? — “Word of the Year is more than a linguistic parlor game: It’s a snapshot of a year in the culture. And this is the perfect time of year to reflect on how good those snapshots turned out to be. A successful WOTY looks great in hindsight—the beginning of something big, or at least a resonant moment in our shared history. A failed one is more like an embarrassing Christmas photo with perm and reindeer sweater.”

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  • 1Brett1


    This word is definitely a snapshot of this past year’s cultural trends.

    • Coastghost

      Yes, by providing further evidence of diminution, laziness, and/or decadence.

    • nlpnt

      Pun intended?

      • 1Brett1

        Yes, and I also used “snapshot” played off an entire statement in the above Boston Globe quote.

  • Coastghost

    The WSJ makes a fair point, but I’d nominate “bungled” to characterize the rollout of ObamaFraud (“botch” is fine as far as it goes, but arguably it doesn’t go far enough: while its monosyllabic form instantly suggests derivation from Anglo-Saxon [would be keen to hear Mr McWhorter's views on Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"], sadly, “botch” in the sense given has not been attested prior to its appearance in Middle English).
    “Bungled” seems to be of Scandinavian descent, but it further seems capable of conveying a distinctly risible regard a bit more emphatically than “botch” does, although lexicographers tell us the two terms are functional synonyms.

    • J__o__h__n

      Botched and bungled are not new words or new in their usage for 2013. Both were in frequent use during 2000 to 2008. Almost every nonfiction book during those years contained words like fiasco in their titles.

  • Coastghost

    I’m sure Ms. Sacco sees the virtual equivalence of Tweeting and speech today . . . .

  • Bminder

    do you think we are heading down to a twelve or twenty language planet? by my lights, it would be ‘down.’ will we lose all ‘direction languages,’ so that children will no longer cry out to a sibling, ‘watch out, there is an ant on your southwest leg?’ my understanding is that direction languages incline native speakers to ‘dead reckoning,’ an ability we long thought the domain of only pigeons and a few ants. or how about languages where the past is indicated by forward looking gestures, since the past is what we know, as in we can see what we’ve done, whereas the future is in that tricky, hidden, unrevealed, murky ‘behind.’ and what of tonal languages that incline speakers to perfect pitch? is it just a platitude to lament losing so many languages or is there some unclear but substantial tragedy happening that could only be stayed by a radical initiative to value these people enough not to run ‘em over. bob minder

  • J__o__h__n

    It sound bad. Not approve.

  • Rebekah

    As a high school English teacher, the biggest change I’ve noticed is verb tense, specifically the difference between simple present and present progressive. Students, instead of writing “Atticus defends Tom Robinson,” write “Atticus is defending Tom Robinson.” I’ve also noticed this tense used is contemporary young adult literature. This seems to be the direction in which our students are headed and I do not like it at all–it’s much less assertive.

    • Labropotes

      In 80′s and 90′s New York, constructions like “I’m wanting some really good sushi” and “I’m appreciating the attention to detail” sort of got on my nerves. Seems similar. Maybe people have always done that.

    • nj_v2

      In a related story, note the now near-pervasive use of the fake present tense in local teevee news reporting. “Car crash ties up traffic for hours” even though the event happened half a day ago.

      Similar issue with the use of “We’re back after this message.” when various teevee “personalities” segue into commercial breaks.

      • J__o__h__n

        I suppose you will be expecting that they cover actual news next.

  • J__o__h__n

    Criticizing the poor grammar and style of texts makes one old fashioned – and the example he comes up with is people who didn’t like the geriatric Rolling Stones?

  • AC

    it makes sense that we should return to a more ‘universal’ language, likely a very efficient use of colors/pictures maybe? wasn’t ti the tower of babel the reason man became angry with other men?? what is the story? google time….

  • AC

    if you think language should be more formal, read victorian novels. you could cry in frustration….

  • AC

    speaking of vicotiran writing and Churchhill, read ‘inside of the cup’….good book tho….

  • J__o__h__n

    Standards are not elitism.

  • Labropotes

    The guest equates formulas with wit. lol.

    NPR is a great place to get a sense of the stale atmosphere frequently engendered when much winking and nodding is interlarded in language.

    Edward Gibbon’s “On the Roman Empire?” A linguist uses Gibbon as an example of overwriting, of elitism? He is clearly steeped in the text… not!

    Our guest is not endowed with such an intellect as cannot be amused or occupied by a box of cracker jacks.

  • Coastghost

    Would McWhorter care to distinguish “brevity” from “concision”, in terms of “semantic density”?

  • J__o__h__n

    Of course an artist needs to master the basics of language first. Picasso could draw realistically.

  • nj_v2


    I wonder about basic literacy.

    Granted that language should evolve, reflect everyday experience, etc., but it would seem that the ability to know and follow the most basic rules of structure and usage represent a consistent, continual erosion of literacy.

    I’m not sure how much time professional linguists spend in the commons of the tides of everyday writing, but it’s ugly out there.

    “Thanks guy’s!”


    “fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, ect.”

    “I’m always loosing my keys.”

    These examples are from various outlets on the Interwebs, but even in books by well-know publishers, writing is often littered with usage, syntax, and punctuation error. I took notes while reading a book on photography technique, and i ended up filling about 10 pages in a small notebook. The credits even listed a copy editor.

    Things seem to be getting worse.


    • hennorama

      nj_v2 — it may simply be that MWCRE believes in the First Law of Realtylingodynamics: the conservation of e.

      To wit, from their website:

      “Investment sales and 1031 Tax Free Exchangs from Texas to New Hampshire including numerous prominent tenants as CVS, Walgreens, L.L. Beane and others.”

      http://www.metrowestcre.com/about.htm (The blurb about Eric Brosler THE OWNER, under the Our Team heading)

  • J__o__h__n

    Gerry has a g sound not a j.

    • Rick Evans

      That was before it evolved. ;)

      • J__o__h__n

        I have no problem with pronouncing the word the way it evolved but his name didn’t change.

  • Janet Carr

    I added to my tally of parenting successes last night when my 21 y/o son properly used “recompense” in a sentence and never batted an eye. As a word lover and closet grammar policewoman, I am a proud mom!

    • hennorama

      Congratulations, Janet Carr.

      Are you as proud of your son’s texts and tweets, and do you believe his word usage is the same when in the company of his friends and others?

  • damnspot

    McWhorter spoke Elbridge Gerry’s last name as though it was “Jerry”.
    No one in his home town of Marblehead pronounces it with anything except a hard “g”, and that includes the school named after him on Elm Street there.

    • Rick Evans

      Maybe WBZ and other Greater Boston news stations should only hire political reporter from Marblehead because the j pronunciation is fairly common there.

      • damnspot

        The “j” in “gerrymandering” is common everywhere.
        But no native Marbleheader pronounces the name of Madison’s vice-president with a “j”.

        Wikipedia uses two pronunciations but I regard the common pronunciation of “gerrymandering” as incorrect.
        Why the difference?

    • Coastghost

      Do kids in Marblehead (great name for a Boston suburb!) eat peanut butter and gelly sandwiches?

      • damnspot

        The eat peanut butter and lobster sandwiches.

        • Coastghost

          A novel combo: but I can understand how the flavor of the lobster would be enhanced by the peanut butter..

        • J__o__h__n

          Even George Washington Carver couldn’t approve of that combination.

  • Rick Evans

    “Me and my friends”, original English, Emily? The caller needs to consult her 3rd grade grammar text.

    • nj_v2

      Yet there are two punctuation errors in this post.

  • Scott B

    While I love playing with language, and try not to be the “word police” in text or speech, there’s only so much I can take. Not everything needs to be shortened and made slang, or adopted immediately.

    It’s one thing to read a tweet or email from someone, with shortened words and an alphabet soup of initials, but spend 10 minutes in actual conversation with someone that uses the exact same language in person and you’ll be looking for the next best excuse to exit the conversation.

    The way we communicate does tell us something about ourselves and those we interact with.

  • J__o__h__n

    Molly Ivans has been dead for almost seven years. What a contemporary reference.

  • J__o__h__n

    His use of “Sunday best” is annoyingly elitist. Expecting people to wear pants is no more elitist than expecting people to speak correctly.

    • tbphkm33

      This is the 21st century, no one will complain if you decide to go shopping in a mini skirt. … plus, you will get looks than a super model strolling through the store :)

  • nj_v2

    To Tom’s point of humility in the use of the first person, i always use the lower case for the first-person pronoun in anything i write. Why should i be more important than you, he, she, or it? Other languages don’t capitalize it.

    My own little protest.

    • J__o__h__n

      Doesn’t a nonstandard use draw attention to yourself?

      • nj_v2

        It draws attention to the usage, not to me. Maybe it’ll start a movement.

        • Coastghost

          No, it draws attention to YOUR usage, mr cummings.

          • nj_v2

            It raises the issue, which is my point. You manage not to address the issue.

            Are you drawing attention to yourself by your misuse of capitalization, or do you just not know the right form to use?

            At least my usage is willful and informed.

          • 1Brett1

            This comment is the second time (see my reply to Coastghost above) I’ve found myself so torn between a vote up and a vote down that they cancel each other out.

          • 1Brett1

            This comment is the second time (see my reply to nj_v2 below) I’ve found myself so torn between a vote up and a vote down that they cancel each other out.

          • Coastghost

            Never fear, I take up-votes and down-votes both as validation! (In “On Point” forums I find myself disappointed often when I can’t snag a vote down.)
            I do accept votes up, though

    • 1Brett1

      It seems more like deliberately feigned egalitarianism than anything else to use “i” in place of “I.” But we are all duly impressed…Why not capitalize all forms of pronouns and celebrate the importance of us all; t’would be equally egalitarian (and ridiculous).

  • SuziVt

    I missed the first 15 minutes, but has it been mentioned that A Way With Words on NPR is a great program dealing with linguistics? I listen to it on Sat. mornings at 6:00 a.m. It’s wonderful!

    • Coastghost

      Given the sensitivities that beset Disqus moderation in various NPR forums, producers might want to re-name their show “Away with Words”.

  • msrichards

    I heard the word “creativity” several times in the discussion.

    Isn’t it true that the ability to be creative – rather than the ability to follow dubious rules – will always shine through?

    We do not remember Joyce’s “Ulysses” for its adherence to any rules.

    Nonetheless, if I were to advise a young person seeking employment, I would suggest he work on his speech as well as his resume.

    Removing verbal tics such as “like” and “you know” just might make him stand out from the crowd.

    Fun show – Tom!

  • Coastghost

    Since no one else here has taken pains to lambast it, I warn readers of reliance and overreliance on “do” as an active verb.
    Scientists no longer conduct studies, they “do studies”.
    Pollsters no longer poll, they “do polls”.
    Journalists no longer convey news, but then, they seldom ever did.

  • tbphkm33

    Speaking seven languages, I am always reminded of the similarities between languages. Many words is the same basic word with only minor tweaks. Switching between languages, when a word escapes the mind, it is often because the words are so close together.

    • Coastghost

      Ahhh, but does you writes in the other sixes as grammatically as you writes in englesh?

      • tbphkm33

        Ah, the xenophobes have to be heard… no Christmas rock to stick your head under?

        • Coastghost

          I await my delivery of coal, shouldn’t be long now (Buon Natale!).

          • 1Brett1

            What? No barb about your coal being mislabeled “clean coal” by the Obama administration? …You’re slipping.

          • Coastghost

            Really! If I’m not careful, I’ll start smiling when I spit out “Bah! Humbug!”

  • 1Brett1

    Good idea! The adjective “insipient” (not sapient, lacking wisdom, foolishness) would be an archaic word I’d like to resurrect for occasions such as this: as in “your comments have an insipient tone.”

  • Dillon Kiel

    I was dumbfounded to hear your guest say that Johnny and me went to the store is just as correct as Johnny and I went to the store. I don’t think anyone, except maybe your guest, would say that the sentence: “Me went to the store,” is correct. There was a reason that the men in wigs made the rule. Only “I” can go to the store. “Me” cannot! Me is the objective form of I. I am stunned that your guest, a “linguist?,” wouldn’t realize that.

    • hennorama

      If the goal of language is to communicate ideas, and both expressions are understood, the goal is achieved by both.

      In the same way, “Went to the store, me” (which one might hear in Duck Dynasty land) communicates the same idea as the Yodaesque “Went to the store, I did.”

      Language and grammar are not the same things.

      • Dillon Kiel

        Obviously it is understood both ways, or any of the ways you put it. However, my point was not about how many ways you can express the same idea improperly, but the fact that grammar is deteriorating, and becoming less complex every year. I see this as a problem, as should anyone who appreciates articulate, good sounding language that can be understood by anyone speaking the language. It seems to me that a bunch of broken English dialects are a bad thing. What are your thoughts on that, i.e. is it a good or bad thing? And, by the way, are you seriously arguing that saying something like: “me went to store” is an acceptable sentence?

        • hennorama

          Dillon Kiel — thank you for your reply.

          There is no doubt that, in a world in which thoughts are often limited to 140 characters, formal rules of grammar are neither highly prized nor frequently obeyed.

          Perhaps what you object to is actually an increase of informality rather than a deterioration or decrease of complexity.

          I don’t completely disagree with such objections.

          However, one must observe how you have evolved from “correct” to “proper” to “acceptable” with alacrity. Language can evolve with similar speed.

      • Rebecca Williams

        Yes, the meaning is communicated by both, but using me as the subject also communicates a lack of education.

  • 1Brett1

    I, personally, find this habit grating and wonder why people have taken to adding an H.

  • Patsy Brown

    I believe that President Obama’s phrase, “Yes we can!” was adopted from the Spanish phrase, “Si se puede.”

  • Pat

    If i hear Tom say “dimunition” for “diminution” one more time, I swear I’m going to throw the radio out the window. It’s not the first show on which I’ve heard this, and it’s particularly egregious in the context of a show about language.

    • http://talkinbluegrassmusic.blogspot.com/ Betty Westmoreland

      Hi Pat! That’s exactly what I found so amusing while I was listening to the show in my car. The show was about language, and most of the callers (and even Tom) knocked out a few real stinkers!

  • HonestDebate1

    I find referring to yourself in the third person as creepy. Bob Dole almost, almost, lost my vote in ’96 because of it. I can sort of understand someone trying to get his name out there but it’s still creepy. But what’s worse, IMHO, is doing it on blogs like this where stating your position and then defending it is what it’s all about. I say own your words proudly and staunchly defend them. I say beg to be proven wrong and be thankful for the correction if it happens. I just think taking a position it the first prerequisite to honest debate. Don’t be afraid to let the chips fall.

  • Betty Westmoreland

    The more I listened in the car as a young woman talked about how precisely she and her friends talked and texted, the more I laughed right out loud! Her language was filled with ‘like’ and ‘you know’. Marist College recently ranked ‘whatever’ as the most annoying word in our language for the fifth straight year, followed by ‘like’ and ‘you know’. The young woman in question did not represent herself or her peers very well at all.

    I won’t even bring up the gentleman who should have known better when he said ‘Quote Unquote’. That one drives me right over the cliff. And then there’s ‘They invited my wife and I to dinner’. The speaker knows that some pronoun goes there; however, he has no idea which pronoun to use.

    It was a fun night of examples of why we are in trouble with our English language.

  • Elliott A. Kautz

    I am a lover of literature and language, and I often hear in my friends’ English not just mistakes but intensely aggravating, nails-on-the-chalkboard mistakes. However, I have also spent much time traveling internationally and living in Europe, (particularly in The Netherlands) where I learned and listened to the subtle differences between all different global languages. A notable example here is the difference between Dutch spoken in North-Holland and the Dutch of Flanders: The Netherlands has adapted so many English words into use, and where Belgians tend to keep their original Dutch words (or also use -older- French or German influences in their Dutch), and where they are perhaps more traditional, people of The Netherlands are more international, or perhaps progressive. Another sign of this is that Flanders will still use the formal “you” – even to children smaller than them! – whereas in The Netherlands, the informal rules among younger generations (up to people in their 30′s, I would guess) who may even use the informal language while speaking to elders.

    All this to say that there is something progressive, and not to be brushed off, about using informal language and adapting new trends. It is everywhere, distinctive in ALL culture. I think every word we speak characterizes how we think, and should be used to express identity and individuality (and, in a way, equality, because with slang we speak to others in the “informal”); formal language is also imperative, though perhaps for *deepening* our understanding of ourselves, and for articulating our experience with broader reach and effect. The future is nothing without the past and the past nothing without the future: what is important, to me, is that we do not throw away either one.

    (If I were to use social media I would: hashtag symbiosis hashtag dualism hashtag permaculture hashtag thatslife) ;-)

  • http://talkinbluegrassmusic.blogspot.com/ Betty Westmoreland

    Maybe it is because it is late afternoon here, or maybe it is because it is the day after Christmas, but the word ‘data’ is mispronounced nearly every time it is used. When correctly pronounced, that first ‘a’ is a long ‘a’. The word should rhyme with ‘date’. The word ‘data’ is also plural, by the way. The singular is ‘datum’. One should actually say ‘data are’. Very few say it correctly. Even fewer refer to one little fact or number as a ‘datum’.

    Then there’s ‘PIN number’. PIN stands for personal identification number. That second word ‘number’ is redundant. The uninformed are really saying ‘Personal Identification Number number,’ which of course is ridiculous. The same uninformed folks are also saying that they just plain don’t know any better than to say ‘PIN number’.

    Anderson Cooper, please add these faux pas to the Ridiculist.

  • http://talkinbluegrassmusic.blogspot.com/ Betty Westmoreland

    It’s ‘affect’ as you have used the word there…not ‘effect’. But, no matter. You’re so right about the problems that people might have with our language. The ‘prez’ and POTUS and SCOTUS (and even ‘Veep,’ first used by Alben Barkley, I think) are strange even to many whose first language is English.

Sep 2, 2014
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks with Mark Wilson, event political speaker chairperson, with his wife Elain Chao, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, August 4, 2012. (AP)

Nine weeks counting now to the midterm elections. We’ll look at the key races and the stakes.

Sep 2, 2014
Confederate spymaster Rose O'Neal Greenhow, pictured with her daughter "Little" Rose in Washington, D.C.'s Old Capitol Prison in 1862. (Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) recovers a fumble by Carolina Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson (3) in the second quarter of the NFL preseason football game on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh. (AP)

One outspoken fan’s reluctant manifesto against football, and the big push to reform the game.

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On Labor Day, we’ll check in on the American labor force, with labor activist Van Jones, and more.

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