|Photo: American Dialect Society|
Or is it that in my spare time, I'm a novelist?
At any rate, I spend a lot of time thinking academically about language, and then come home and think about it from the perspective of a writer, as well. This weekend was the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, which was founded in 1889 to analyze language use and change in North America.
Now, one thing that we do in ADS is vote on the "Words of the Year," which is where we get to put words into the high school yearbook categories of "Most Creative" "Most Outrageous" "Most Likely to Succeed," and so on. It's a lot of raucous fun with people who at once take this task way too seriously and yet with a great deal of irreverence.
This year, the word of the year is #hashtag, which beat out marriage equality in a close vote because of its sudden prominence and migration from Twitter to other forms of social media, like Facebook and even blogs.
But two years from now, will we know what a hashtag is, and will we care?
In January of 2012, how many of you knew the neighborhood where the wealthiest people in Seoul reside? This year, thanks to "Gangnam Style," there are probably few of you that don't know its name. Three years ago, tweet was probably a verb most people associated with actual avian creatures. In 2009, it was voted Word of the Year for the social media network that is probably our first association with it now.
Also on the various ballots this year were marriage equality (most likely to succeed) and YOLO (tied with phablet for least likely to succeed).
Often, as the New York Times notes, the ADS chooses a WOTY with some staying power, like occupy, app, or tweet. But sometimes a word has a meteoric rise to popularity, and later, it falls almost as precipitously, as in the case of the 1990 WOTY, bushlips.
What does this have to do with writing?
One of the biggest problems writers face, especially YA writers, is that we have to make something that feels authentic to the teen experience, when the experience of teens changes almost by the minute. I'm only sixteen years older than my nephew, but I didn't get a candybar cellphone until I was a college graduate, whereas he got an iPhone for Christmas (and his nine-year-old brother got his first cellphone for his birthday this year.)
Language plays a big part in that. What's cool this year may well be stigmatizingly lame next year—this is exactly the kind of thing that the ADS attendees get into (very friendly and civilized) fights about at the WOTY meeting. As writers, we know that choosing the right words gives characters meaning and depth, and the wrong word pulls the reader out of the story.
I had an experience recently reading a future dystopian where the author had given new names to technology, as well as invented a new word for cool. But because she didn't explain how the new technology was any different from texting or why the characters used a different word to mean "cool," I was thrown out of the story to ask those questions of in my mind every time the words appeared. I found it distracting, and it was one of the many reasons I wound up not finishing the book.
When we write, especially for those of us who are planning books in hopes of commercial contracts, we're looking at anywhere from 1-3 years from the time we write "the end" to the time when that book hits the shelves. So reaching for the latest and loudest and coolest isn't always the best, and even in a future society, creating new language can sometimes create a bit of a disconnect.
Words with staying power, like cool and crazy have the power to make characters sound appropriately teen, without dating the book.
After all, even Katniss Everdeen rode on a victory train.
The full WOTY rundown (and if you look at the video, you can see me live-tweeting the results from the second row) at The Visual Thesaurus