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Words You Heard In 2017


It's now time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand some of the stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. But since it's the end of the year, we thought we'd take a look back at some of the words you've heard over the course of 2017.

So we called Ben Zimmer. He's a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Later this week, Zimmer will head to the annual conference of the American Dialect Society in Salt Lake City to help decide their word of the year. But first, he joins us from his home in New Jersey.

Ben Zimmer, thanks very much for speaking with us.

BEN ZIMMER: Thanks for having me.

SUAREZ: What words are in the running for word of the year? And how do you and your colleagues make the selection?

ZIMMER: Well, we've got a lot of interesting choices this year - a lot of them related to Trump, not surprisingly. But the American Dialect Society has been picking a word of the year since 1990, in fact. Other groups have gotten in on the act and pick their own words of the year. We get to have the last word, basically, because we pick ours in the first week of January. And we're expecting a lot of interesting discussion to happen when we all gather for our annual meeting.

SUAREZ: As you mentioned, the Trump presidency has provided some new terms - from Kellyanne Conway's alternative facts, to the more inscrutable covfefe, which came from one of the president's early morning tweets. From the perspective of a linguist, which term do you think rises above the din to capture the spirit of the moment politically in 2017?

ZIMMER: Well, you could make a case for alternative facts, even though that first came on the scene way back in January of 2017. It seems like an eternity ago, but that was when Kellyanne Conway started talking about how there were alternative facts that would explain Sean Spicer's declaration about the size of Donald Trump's inauguration crowd. That seems like old news now, but it's interesting that alternative facts, I think, ended up, in some ways, summarizing what was to come.

SUAREZ: Just as the Trump administration has been a source of words and phrases, has the opposition to the president also injected some words and phrases into the political bloodstream?

ZIMMER: Absolutely. Even the word resistance itself has become an important word. There was the nevertheless, she persisted meme, involving something that happened between Senator Elizabeth Warren and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, where Mitch McConnell ended up saying about Warren - nevertheless, she persisted.

And in fact, nevertheless, she persisted has spun off its own words, like persisterhood (ph), which combines persistence and sisterhood.

SUAREZ: We are, I would say, living in the post-Harvey Weinstein moment. Has that spawned a set of phrases to try to bring awareness to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault? Does the hashtag #MeToo enter the conversation about word of the year? I don't know if you designate hashtag words.

ZIMMER: We do, in fact, consider hashtags. I think actually #MeToo could be a strong contender. Another term that's come out from sort of the post-Weinstein era is the term reckoning, a very portentous term for settling of accounts. And thanks to the #MeToo movement, 2017 has been called by some, the year of the reckoning.

SUAREZ: We've hit on politics. We've hit on cultural moments. Are there some words that are in contention for 2017 that we may not have thought of?

ZIMMER: Well, words can come from anywhere, not just the political scene. They can come from technology, business, popular culture. And one term that's been prominent in all of those areas is blockchain. It's the technology that underlies bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, these virtual currencies that are cryptographically secured. And of course, bitcoin had a big explosion in value this year. And so even if people don't exactly understand what it is, that term, blockchain, has become a very important buzzword.

SUAREZ: That's Ben Zimmer. He's a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Ben Zimmer, thanks for joining us. And happy new year.

ZIMMER: Thanks. You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.