linguistics annual sleepover debrief part 1: the woties
Word of the Year, sometimes abbreviated WOTY, is a thing that some scholarly societies and dictionaries do every year as a kind of fun little event, playfully comparable to things like the Oscars or Grammies. Personally I really like treating “woty” as a word, which pluralizes to “woties,” and I will be doing so throughout this post and there is nothing you can do to stop me ❤.
The American Dialect Society’s WOTY is the oldest version of these, and has been going for over thirty years. Some of my faves from Woties Past include #blacklivesmatter (2014), #hashtag (2012), and the prefix e- (as in e-commerce, etc.; 1998). I also was a part of the vote for 2019’s Woty, (my) pronouns — I spoke in favor of it in part because of how exciting it was to see so much public awareness of a word about linguistic forms! The Word of the Decade (for the 20-teens, voted on at the end of 2019) was also (singular) they, about which I had many strong opinions, as you may guess. (That sense of they also won the 2015 Woty! I could write a whole thing about pronouns in the Woties, but that’s another post, honestly.)
One thing to note is that, for the ADS at least, Woties also include affixes (e- like e-mail) and phrases (hashtag black lives matter). The idea behind the Woties is that it doesn’t need to be a completely new word, but a word that rose to prominence that year; words that were previously kind of niche or only used by smaller groups often get nominated by linguists for Woties when they’re becoming more mainstream. Linguists will also very readily tell you that we absolutely do not, as a scientific community, have anything resembling consensus on a universal definition of a “word,” so we’re pretty relaxed about what qualifies for Woty nominations. This is very much on purpose, because this event is meant to be fun and light-hearted and get people interested in language and linguistics — we’re not having a serious scientific vote on what word had the most meteoric rise in any given year, nor are we trying to seriously predict what words will stay prominent (see the very first Woty winner, bushlips, in 1990!).
Anyways, this brings us to 2022’s Woties! Spoiler alert: you probably have already heard that the winner is the libfix¹ -ussy, coming from a blend of things like “boy pussy → bussy” and “throat pussy → thrussy.” The morpheme was originally nominated in (and won) the Most Creative Woty. This ending has been around for a long time, but became much more productive this year — you’ll have to take my word for it for a moment, because Twitter search is useless and I’m not getting out the entire API for a blogpost, sorry. Here’s a fun example of a language user explicitly wondering about the morphophonological constraints on the way -ussy affixes to multisyllabic words, though:
There are a few reasons -ussy won. One, and I think this is genuinely really important to me at least: the last few Woties have been fucking bummers. The last several annual conferences with the ADS and its sister society the Linguistic Society of America have been either all-virtual or halfassedly hybrid, and the Woties have been either about alarming and shitty political goings-on or pandemic stuff. It’s not that those things aren’t important, and it’s not that the shitty political goings-on or pandemic stuff have stopped, but it’s word of the year, not theme that we think is super important to raise awareness of the year. This past year has been a year of learning how to keep being human, and have fun and make silly jokes, while still living with really godawful conditions that are absolutely not resolved. It is my strong belief that it is genuinely bad for humans to be in a constant state of stress, grief, anger, and uncertainty — we need fun shit, even/especially in the bad times.
The other reason that -ussy won is that the ADS Woties is the only Woties decided by a room full of a couple hundred sleep-deprived linguists, who are all huge nerds. We tend to vote for Woties that are linguistically interesting, again because we are professional nerds of this thing. The -ussy libfix is interesting because it is a libfix — that is, it’s something that was a blend but is sort of becoming an affix through reanalysis, and also because it’s got some weird morphophonological constraints on how syllable structures and stuff work out. How would you attach -ussy to words like parliamentarian, or refrigerator, or interdisciplinary? Are there words it can’t attach to? Does it have to attach to a noun, or can it attach to verbs and adjectives? Many linguistic questions about -ussy!
The third reason, or group of reasons, is I think that it is a sign of something interesting going on with the cultural conceptions of sex, gender, sexuality, and bodies in the USian collective consciousness right now. First off, pussy is very much a word that in its strictest literal sense refers to cis womens’² genitals — and it is very fucking rare for positive cultural associations to be metaphorically tied to those. Yet when Spongebob puts his whole spongebobussy into a Krabby Patty, this does very much mean that it’s going to be an extremely good burger. There is also, sort of orthogonal to this, this de-conflation between genital configuration and gender — the word bussy is very much one that originated in mostly-cis gay men’s circles, and the general uses of -ussy when it is refering to some actual kind of genital are really divorced from anything like cis womanhood or even vaginas more generally. It’s just, like, hole (positive). While literal uses of -ussy are still, yes, very focused on penetrative sex over other kinds of sex, and while some users do (perhaps jokingly?) reinforce a kind of sexual binary of penetrator/penetratee, it really is not at all necessary that someone be feminine or woman-adjacent to have a [_]ussy of whatever kind. Idk, I just think that’s neat!
The final thing, and I am sharing this with you because I want you to have a good idea of how the Woties work and how the world in general works, is that a lot of us voted for it because we thought it would be funny to make Ben Zimmer talk about it to the press.
Anyways here are some articles: them, Rolling Stone, AV Club, Out magazine, Pink News, and Know Your Meme quoted my least-interesting tweet about it. Also see linguist Nancy Friedman’s blogpost. (I think it’s really fucking cool how much press this is getting, by the way — it’s more attention that linguistics usually gets, and I’m excited that people think it’s fun and interesting!)
¹A libfix is when a blend turns into an affix. They’re dope as hell.
² It is not the case that the word pussy isn’t used to refer to peoples’ genitals other than cis women’s, but like definitely that’s what the majority of cis people mean when they say it. In my experience many but not all trans men and transmasc people find it dysphoric, and honestly the trans women and transfem people that I know just happen to use other words for the most part. Someone else do a linguistic study on this, please, I’ll help you recruit.
This is Part 1 of a few connected blogposts about the recent LSA meeting. You can read Part 2 here, about what the actual research was that I presented.
You might also be interested in my longer previous blogpost about themself / themselves, or you might also like to read some of my previous thoughts on syntax or perhaps my methodology thoughts on gender in linguistics surveys. And you can keep up with what I’m up to on my twitter.