language and words in the news Love English

Check your privilege and know thy selfie

Words of the Year 2013As the year draws to a close it’s timely to consider what words and phrases stood out over the last twelve months. Some recurred in the news (surveillance, privacy, drone), while others rose rapidly in cultural or subcultural currency (selfie, chapulling, listicle, feels). Bitcoin made financial headlines, while twerk made waves in the entertainment pool.

Reviewing vintage words of the year (WOTYs) shows how quickly they can fade. In 2011 it was hard to avoid planking, but nobody mentions it any more. Like the action it refers to, it was ephemeral, a fad, and word use is subject to the flow of fashion like any other mutable aspect of social behaviour.

It also depends on current affairs. In recent years I’ve looked at occupy and fiscal cliff in the context of WOTY; neither term sustained its mainstream momentum, nor were they expected to. Omnishambles and humblebrag, wonderful as they are, have also peaked. A more productive word, as I noted in January, is mansplaining (or just the –splain part of it). Don’t expect that one to disappear just yet.

One phrase I want to highlight is privilege-checking, from sense 2 of privilege: “a way of life that involves having many advantages and opportunities…”. Thus check your privilege, described as “one of the great political rallying cries of 2013”, is increasingly used in debates about social justice and power, typically directed at people who are saying something from a position of unconscious privilege.

For example, a middle-class white male might remark on how little abuse there is in social media, not having realised or enquired about its extent for people in less socially powerful positions: he has failed to check his privilege. As the Geek Feminism Wiki puts it, a privileged person “is not necessarily prejudiced (sexist, racist, etc) as an individual, but may be part of a broader pattern of *-ism even though unaware of it”.

Privilege-checking and check your privilege are still quite niche, but Google Trends shows the catchphrase’s ascendancy. I’ve seen blog posts on it from 2006, and the idea itself is older still, but only in the last couple of years has privilege-checking really taken off. It’s been the subject of considerable commentary, including backlashes and parody – each paradoxically a sign of its popularity.

So then: time to choose. First, honourable mentions go to privacy – arguably the issue of the year – and selfie, which Kerry Maxwell says has been “embraced by a range of ages and walks of life”. Kerry’s BuzzWord column is a good place to follow usage trends, since it looks at new and newly popular terms like the recently successful phubbing; another good source is the user-generated Open Dictionary, recent additions to which include selfie-siblings shelfie and belfie.

But my WOTY is more of a phrase of the year: the newish construction because X. Because reasons. Now your turn: What’s your word or phrase of the year, and why?

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


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