Lindsay Lohan, Katy Perry, Barry Manilow and Ronnie Wood all do it, and now it’s Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. Vape: to suck on an electronic cigarette. If you vape, you are a “vaper” (for obvious reasons, no one thought “vapist” was a good idea); and the act of doing so – perhaps in a “vaporium” – is “vaping”. (In fact, “vaping” was coined as long ago as 1983, when such devices were as yet a pipe-dream.)
Associated vape-vocab noticed by Oxford includes “e-cigarette”, “e-juice” (the nicotinous liquid inside), and the pleasing retrospective formation “tobacco cigarette”, so people will know what you mean when referring to what used to be just a “cigarette”. Technically, this is called a retronym, as when people began to say “landline” when mobile phones were invented; or when restaurants began to offer “hen’s eggs” once foodists had moved on to scoffing the eggs of ostriches and probably ants.
A well-chosen word of the year tells us something about the cultural conversation over the past 12 months. As Oxford Dictionaries chief Casper Grathwohl remarks: “This year ‘vape’ sat at the centre of several rich conversations: the debate over private versus community rights; regulation and public health; and our relationship to our visible vices.” So, to look back over 10 years of such lists might be one way to plot a cultural narrative, or at least thrill to our remembered linguistic innocence, before everyone knew what it meant to vape while twerking.
Twerking, you recall, went mainstream last year, thanks to energetic demonstrations by Miley Cyrus – but didn’t win 2013’s Oxford title, finding itself beaten by “selfie”. That will surely be relevant as long as we live in an age of digitally enabled narcissism, an era that top cultural futurists confidently expect to last at least another 1,000 years. It seems already as though 2013 was a golden period linguistically, as “selfie” also saw off strong challenges from “binge-watch” and “Big Data”. This year’s runners-up are the slightly less impressive “normcore” (it’s hip to be square), “contactless” (for card-hovering payments), and “indyref” (rather particular to this year).
Bygone words of the year fall into two categories: those that will continue to be useful, and those that already reek of novelty value or worse. We can cheerfully predict that “omnishambles”, originally from BBC2’s political satire The Thick of Itand awarded 2012’s title, will remain relevant for as long as things are comically mismanaged, ie for ever. Other winners from the past 10 years, meanwhile, seem now so firmly established that it is difficult to remember when they were ever new, such as “sudoku” (2005) and “carbon footprint” (2007). The same goes for Oxford’s US word of the year for 2005, “podcast”, despite the curious fact that it was built around a commercial product, the iPod, that is now more or less technologically obsolete. Some of Oxford’s other American winners, though, have already gone mouldy, such as “hypermiling” (what?) from 2008, or the apparently once-hilarious 2010 Sarah Palin-ism, “refudiate”.
A few years’ perspective also makes other UK winners seem dangerously dated already. The 2009 crowning of “simples” seems, from this distance, mainly like an astonishing marketing triumph, and an odd reminder of a nation momentarily fascinated by animated meerkats. And “Big Society” from 2010 is now a forlorn throwback to that short period just after the election when commentators were bending over backwards to give David Cameron the benefit of the doubt. Did he really have a national plan that amounted to something more cuddly than cuts and privatisation? “Big Society” was a boon to columnists, who set themselves the creative task of deciding what exactly it might actually mean, as well as a boon to exactly no one else.
Taken together, some words of the year amount to a narrative about changing middle-class preoccupations. Once it was all about “chavs” (2004) or the slightly naughty appropriation of comedian Catherine Tate’s “bovvered” (2006), but then came the “credit crunch” (2008), and the bloated illusion of the aforementioned “Big Society”, leaving an ever-more-anxious “squeezed middle” (2011). A thematically similar narrative – though one that ends in active rebellion rather than cheek-chewing worry – is sketched for the US by the pointed nominations of the American Dialect Society, whose choices have included “subprime” (2007), “bailout” (2008) and “occupy” (2011).
But enough of economic woes: now everyone is taking touching vaper selfies like the musician Bruno Mars. Thus we hypermoderns may revel in the twin pleasures of using technologically enhanced drug-delivery systems while rolling novel words around on our unscorched tongues.