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The American Dialect Society’s word of the year is “dumpster fire”

A flamey inferno
Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain
On fire.
  • Georgia Frances King
By Georgia Frances King

Ideas Editor

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Every year, members of the American Dialect Society gather together to pick the best word that snuck into our lexicons the year before. In 2014, the ADS crowned the hashtag “#blacklivesmatter” over the softer cultural references ”bae” and “manspreading.” In 2015, they reflected the media’s move toward gender-neutral pronouns by picking “they” over “on fleek” and the verb “ghost.”

And in 2016, they have not so much chosen a word as they have substantiated the state of America that predominates a hefty portion of the nation’s mindset.

The 2016 word of the year is “dumpster fire.”

A metaphor that has been used by Mother Jones, The Weekly Standard, and seemingly half of Twitter during the presidential debates, it describes an unwieldy situation that has gotten out of control due to mismanagement. Often used in reference to the 2016 US election, the original GIF has been viewed over 10 million times. It became such a popular term that the AP Style Guide, a literary bible for writers and editors, changed their official syntax for “dumpster” to accommodate:

“As 2016 unfolded, many people latched on to dumpster fire as a colorful, evocative expression to verbalize their feelings that the year was shaping up to be a catastrophic one,” says Ben Zimmer, chair of the society’s new words committee. “In pessimistic times, ‘dumpster fire’ served as a darkly humorous summation of how many viewed the year’s events.”

The ADS’s annual word-of-the-year compilation is the oldest of its type, and the final results are voted on by a cohort of linguists, grammarians, lexicographers, researchers, writers, and other wordy types. The words are chosen to reflect the most important and poignant issues in American society, and have to be “newly prominent or notable in the past year.”

“Dumpster fire” is certainly not a new term. Starting its neologism life as an idiom used in sports reporting, the first time the Columbia Journalism Review could find it being used in political parlance was in 2008, on the Scholars and Rogues blog: “Maybe, satire aside, this whole dumpster fire is bad for progressives fighting their way toward November.” Since then, it has gobbled up oxygen and grown into an inferno, swallowing much of 2016’s political rhetoric with it.

“Dumpster fire” beat out other politically tinged terms such as “post-truth,” “deplorables (basket of),” “alt-right,” and “cuck,” as well as teen-speak such as “woke,” “slay,” and “turn up.” Here is a list of the nominations for all categories, including the winners for each and the ADS-provided definitions.

Word of the year:

normalize: render normal that which was previously deemed beyond acceptable bounds
post-truth: belonging to a time in which facts matter less than feelings or emotions
woke: socially aware or enlightened
#NoDAPL: protest against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline
WINNER—dumpster fire: a poorly handled or out-of-control situation

Political word of the year:

deplorables (basket of): epithet used by Clinton in speech about Trump supporters
nasty woman: epithet used by Trump addressing Clinton in final presidential debate
Pantsuit Nation: popular Facebook group for Clinton supporters
unpresidented: erroneous version of unprecedented in a tweet by Trump
WINNER—post-truth: belonging to a time in which facts matter less than beliefs and emotions

Digital word of the year:

fam: one’s crew, squad, circle of friends, etc.
Harambe: gorilla killed at Cincinnati Zoo, launching numerous tributes and memes
tweetstorm: series of connected tweets about a particular subject, often a passionate rant
WINNER—@: (verb) reply on Twitter using the @ symbol

Slang word of the year:

fire: (adj.) cool, fun, stylish
receipts: proof (as in “show me the receipts”)
slay: succeed, be excellent or amazing
WINNER—woke: socially aware or enlightened

Most useful/likely to succeed:

chip: (verb) insert a bank card into an electronic chip reader (as opposed to swipe)
normalize: render normal that which was previously deemed beyond acceptable bounds
turn up: get excited, have fun, enjoy oneself
WINNER—gaslight: psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity

Most creative:

-exit: combining form relating to departure, after Brexit (Calexit, Texit, Brangelexit)
facticide: killing or distortion of facts
gynotician: politician seen as interfering with women’s healthcare
WINNER—laissez-fairydust: magical effect brought upon by laissez-faire economics

Euphemism of the year:

alt-right: umbrella term for extremist racial ideologies including white nationalism and white supremacy
fake news: misinformation, hoaxes, and propaganda, especially as spread on social media sites to boost web traffic
small/tiny hands: jab at hand size implying other anatomical deficiencies
WINNER—locker-room banter: lewd, vulgar talk (used by Trump to downplay Access Hollywood tape)

WTF word of the year:

cuck, cuckservative: derisive term for mainstream Republicans by alt-right
pussy: term for female genitalia used by Trump in Access Hollywood tape
yuuuge: dialect pronunciation of huge used by Trump and Bernie Sanders
WINNER—bigly: in a significant manner (from widespread mishearing of Trump’s use of big-league)

Hashtag of the year

#blackgirlmagic: celebration of black women and their achievements
#OscarsSoWhite: criticism of Academy Award nominees’ lack of diversity
#pussygrabsback: rallying cry responding to Trump’s “pussy” remark
WINNER—#NoDAPL: protest against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline

Emoji of the year:

🙌: raising hands (celebration, praise)
✊🏽: raised fist (fist pump, solidarity)
🙃: upside-down face (silliness, sarcasm, irony)
WINNER—🔥: fire (“lit,” exciting); 🗑🔥: dumpster fire

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