Linguistic Snapshots: Unveiling the “Words of the Year” from the Last 20 Years

Words of the year

The “Word of the Year” (“WotY”) acts as a linguistic time capsule, offering fascinating insights into the main events and prevailing mood of each passing year. This annual selection is wildly popular across numerous countries, including Germany, Norway, Belgium, and Singapore. In this blog post, we look into the “Words of the Year” over the past two decades, drawing from reports by Merriam-Webster and the Oxford University Press

Words of 2003 

Merriam-Webster: democracy 

Oxford University Press: none 

Back in 2003, selecting a “Word of the Year” was not widespread, with Merriam-Webster making such a choice for the first time and Oxford University Press following them only a year later. The selection of democracy was not random – at the time, US forces invaded Iraq, starting the Iraq War that lasted for another eight years. Given the event’s intensive coverage on the news and other political issues brought into the discourse, Merriam-Webster opted to select democracy as its WotY of 2003

Words of 2004 

Merriam-Webster: blog 

Oxford University Press: chav 

In the early 2000s, blogging became a popular activity. Through growing discussion, many people started to wonder what a blog even was. By being the most user-requested term, Merriam-Webster thus gave the “WotY” title to the word blog. On the other side of the pond, Oxford University Press selected chav as its first “WotY,” which, according to BBC, was somewhat controversial. The conflict occurred between middle- and working-class citizens, with the latter saying that the word had an offensive undertone, implying stereotypical images of a feckless underclass. 

Words of 2005 

Merriam-Webster: integrity 

Oxford University Press: sudoku (UK) and podcast (US) 

The following year, Oxford University Press selected not one but two words since their editorial staff are based in both the US and the UK. Sudoku became wildly popular among Brits, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it was selected as a “WotY.” Likewise, the concept of podcast rapidly spread among people due to technological advancements; the word was added to the dictionary in 2006. Integrity also topped Merriam-Webster’s list by being the most-searched term


Words of 2006  

Merriam-Webster: truthiness 

Oxford University Press: bovvered (UK) and carbon-neutral (US) 

In 2006, the word truthiness, referring to “the quality of seeming to be true but not necessarily or actually true according to known facts,” was selected as the “WotY” through a reader poll. What’s interesting is that Google stood in second place. Originating from a surly working-class teenage character played by the UK comedian Catherine Tate – bovvered is the same as bothered but intentionally implies a lack of interest through lazy spelling/pronunciation. Finally, carbon-neutral serves as a time capsule since, at the time, the green movement spread around the US, and as a result, more and more awareness was raised regarding carbon emissions and their damage to the climate. 

Words of 2007 

Merriam-Webster: w00t 

Oxford University Press: carbon footprint (UK) and locavore (US) 

Climate-related issues remained relevant, as evidenced by the phrase carbon footprint being declared “WotY” in the UK. Conversely, a new trend – known as locavore – started spreading in Iceland. Essentially, it meant that locally grown food was seen as more nutritious than imported ingredients sold in supermarkets; people were encouraged to buy their food from a farmer’s market or, if possible, grow it themselves. Merriam-Webster’s choice in 2007 was a fun one – w00t being an expression of joy used by the gaming community. 

Words of 2008 

Merriam-Webster: bailout 

Oxford University Press: credit crunch (UK) and hypermiling (US) 

The year 2008 was challenging due to the economic crisis. The phrase credit crunch, referring to the sudden “decline in lending activity by financial institutions,” effectively reflects the financial struggles many faced at the time. Hypermiling is yet another term related to the green movement, which, according to Oxford University Press, means “to maximize gas mileage by making fuel-conserving adjustments to one’s car and one’s driving techniques.” Merriam-Webster’s selection was, yet again, made by its users; throughout the year, they mostly wanted to know what bailout meant. As Merriam-Webster states, it is “a rescue from financial distress”, which at the time was much needed.  

Words of 2009 

Merriam-Webster: admonish 

Oxford University Press: simples (UK) and unfriend (US) 

Admonish was crowned the “Word of 2009” as a result of one political event, where Joe Wilson interrupted by shouting, “You lie!” during a speech held by Barack Obama. His behaviour was subsequently admonished, and people extensively looked up the word in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. The Oxford University Press continued its practice of selecting two words. With people becoming frequent users of social media, unfriending became a common practice by, for example, Facebook users. Simples, on the other hand, emerged from popular TV adverts featuring friendly CGI meercats, meaning something that is easy to achieve.  

Words of 2010

Merriam-Webster: austerity 

Oxford University Press: big society (UK) and refudiate (US) 

As the world was recovering from the economic crisis, the term austerity came into use, mainly to describe the seemingly harsh financial decisions made by the government and individual households. In the UK, Oxford University Press selected big society, a term coined by David Cameron, as their “WotY”. While the concept was somewhat unclear, its main idea seemed to entail a more cohesive society run on a community level. Refudiate is also a word introduced by a specific person – proto-Trump Sarah Palin – and at the time, its meaning caused much confusion. However, refudiate is a portmanteau of the words refute and repudiate.

Words of 2011

Merriam-Webster: pragmatic 

Oxford University Press: squeezed middle 

Since 2004, 2011 marked the first year Oxford decided to title only one word as the “WotY”. Their choice landed on the phrase squeezed middle. According to The Guardian, this particular year largely lacked linguistic creativity, with the shortlist containing only a few examples of wordplay. As the “WotY” from the year before, this term was also coined by a politician – Labour leader Ed Miliband. It is used to refer to people whose income is not high enough to lead a comfortable life but not low enough to receive state benefits. Merriam-Webster declared pragmatic as their “WotY” and, as usual, because it was the most searched term of 2011 in their dictionary.

Words of 2012

Merriam-Webster: socialism and capitalism 

Oxford University Press: omnishambles (UK) and GIF (US) 

2012 was interesting because both Merriam-Webster and Oxford University Press selected two words as their “Words of the Year”. Merriam-Webster reported that socialism and capitalism appeared so closely in their search queries (due to elections) that they gave the title to both terms. Oxford’s omnishambles – meaning an escalating series of disasters –has political roots (as in the previous years), and GIF as an image format celebrated its 25th birthday that year.

Words of 2013 

Merriam-Webster: science 

Oxford University Press: selfie 

Like in 2004 and 2011, 2013 was another year when the Oxford University Press selected only one word as their “WotY” – selfie. At the time, taking self-portraits with a smartphone became a common practice, and this short word emerged as a neat way of referring to such photos. Interestingly, Oxford’s shortlist included words like twerk and binge-watch that also defined 2013’s burgeoning pop culture. Merriam-Webster contrasted Oxford by naming science as the “WotY”. But what was behind this choice? According to Times Union, along with the users’ increased interest (by 176%, to be exact), science reflects much of the topics discussed by society in that year. 

Words of 2014

Merriam-Webster: culture 

Oxford University Press: vape 

Merriam-Webster’s culture was the most searched word of 2014, beating buzzwords such as autonomy, innovation,and insidious. Meanwhile, Oxford University Press selected vape as their “WotY”. As reported by CNN, the use of the word doubled compared to 2013, as the product became wildly popular among people seeking a less harmful way of getting their nicotine fix.

Words of 2015 

Merriam-Webster: –ism 

Oxford University Press: 😂 

2015 was an odd year for anyone waiting for the release of the “WotY”. Both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford University Press made some peculiar selections. Merriam-Webster’s queries revealed that people were searching for all sorts of words ending with –ism. So instead of choosing one, the dictionary company included them all by declaring their shared suffix as the “Word of the Year”. The Oxford University Press made a significant move by choosing an emoji over an actual word. Emojis rapidly spread throughout the decade, with the “face with tears of joy” being the most used in 2015. 

Words of 2016

Merriam-Webster: surreal 

Oxford University Press: post-truth 

2016 was an eventful year even by the standards of the 21st century, with the frequently bizarre US elections and numerous terrorist attacks being heavily reported in the news. Thus, Merriam-Webster chose to sum up this year with surreal. Oxford University Press also wanted to highlight the year’s political tensions, particularly the EU referendum in the UK, by crowning the term post-truth as their “Word of 2016”.

Words of 2017 

Merriam-Webster: feminism 

Oxford University Press: youthquake 

This year was largely shaped by the #MeToo movement, which is why feminism was the most searched word on Merriam-Webster. According to Vanity Fair, 2017 wasn’t the only year when the word made it into the TOP10 list – this also occurred in 2014 and 2015, however back then, it didn’t claim first position. Youthquake, a term coined back in 1965, became a popular buzzword in 2017. Following Oxford’s definition, it is “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” 

Words of 2018

Merriam-Webster: justice 

Oxford University Press: toxic 

Initially, one may not remember toxic as a standout word in 2018. However, Oxford’s research revealed that the term was used in a wide array of topics, especially with different collocates, such as chemical and waste, as well as masculinity and relationship, along withthe hyper-partisan environment of social media. For their “WotY”, Merriam-Webster drew inspiration from news headlines and public debates that more or less revolved around justice. It seems like 2018 was, like the previous year, fundamentally about addressing various sociopolitical issues.

Words of 2019

Merriam-Webster: they 

Oxford University Press: climate emergency 

Throughout the decade, the gender-neutral pronoun they became more used, peaking in 2019. Despite being frequently adopted, many remained unsure of its usage and decided to look it up in the dictionary. Based on this traffic, Merriam Webster selected the pronoun as the “Word of 2019”. The Oxford University Press, on the other hand, decided to capture the year with the phrase climate emergency, since climate-related topics became yet again a hot topic in the public debate.

Words of 2020 

Merriam-Webster: pandemic 

Oxford University Press: none 

This was the year when the Oxford University Press omitted their “WotY” as they considered 2020 was not “a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single “word of the year””. Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, made an obvious choice. 2020 marked the beginning of COVID-19 for most of the world. Thus, pandemic needs no further explanation. 


Words of 2021 

Merriam-Webster: vaccine 

Oxford University Press: vax 

Following the start of the pandemic, global society’s main conversations revolved around vaccines. Both Merriam-Webster and Oxford decided to reflect its imperative by declaring the words vaccine,and its shortened form vax,as the “Words of the Year”. Vaccine was immensely popular in Merriam-Webster’s search queries – compared to 2020, the word’s searches went up by 600% in 2021. A similar trend occurred with vax, with the Oxford Monitor Corpus of English showing that it was 72 times more frequent in 2021 than 2020. 

Words of 2022

Merriam-Webster: gaslighting 

Oxford University Press: goblin mode 

2022 was an interesting one for “WotY”, with one old and one new term earning the title. Merriam-Webster chose gaslighting, meaning “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one’s own advantage”. What’s surprising is that no single event led to the word being frequently searched; search queries were consistently frequent throughout the year. In contrast, Oxford University Press selected goblin mode as their winner. According to Oxford, this slang term “is a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.”

Words of 2023 

Merriam-Webster: authentic 

Oxford University Press: rizz 

This year’s “WotY” title was given to two words – rizz and authentic. Rizz has been popularised by Gen Z, who use it as a shortened form of the word charisma. The Oxford University Press explained their selection by highlighting that the word is an example of how an in-community term can eventually become more widely used by people outside of the community. Merriam-Webster made their choice in favour of authentic due to a growing interest in the word in a seemingly postmodern society. Several factors may have driven people to look up authentic, most notably the roles AI and social media now play in our everyday lives. 

Read more


Don’t forget to add your e-mail address and files and be sure to submit your enquiry. We will be waiting.