No, GIF Is Not the Word of the Year

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 13 2012 6:16 PM

Why GIF Is Not the Word of the Year


Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday Oxford Dictionaries announced their USA Word of the Year, and we have both good and bad news. The good news is that the USAWotY is not YOLO. That’s “you only live once,” the latest teenage shorthand for “I did something really reckless and dumb but I don’t regret it.” Along with superstorm, super PAC, Higgs boson and Eurogeddon, YOLO will mercifully go down in history as an Oxford 2012 also-ran, despite the fact that Zac Efron has it tattooed on his hand.

The bad news is that Oxford has instead selected GIF as its USAWotY—and even if GIF were actually a W, as opposed to another acronym, we would find the choice hard to forgive. For starters, 2012 has so far afforded the OUP word czars a trove of politically resonant possibilities: malarkey, job creator, self-deportation, Romnesia, Obamacare. And the media machine has used the past 12 months to immortalize such phrases as double down, 47 percent, and fiscal cliff. But the real problem, as Jen Doll at the Atlantic points out, is that GIF is a relic of the last century, coined in 1987—even if its supposed migration from the noun to the verb column (a process known to language buffs as zero-formation) happened more recently. OUP Lexicographer Katherine Martin explains:

The GIF, a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, turned 25 this year, but like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier. GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun. The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.

She makes the selection sound defensible, but have you ever heard GIF used as a verb? Here at Brow Beat HQ we talk about GIFs more than most, I suspect. And yet this particular usage has never crossed my path.

Oxford Dictionaries’ grand rival in the word-coronation business, the American Dialect Society, does a much better job with their WotYs, if you ask me. (Full disclosure: Some prominent members of that Society have contributed to Slate.) They wait—prudently, respectably—until December to anoint a lexical nugget. Their deciders (decider was an ADS runner-up in 2006) are linguists donating their time to a nonprofit, while the OUP words are selected by a joint team of linguists and publicists. Last year, the ADS brilliantly picked occupy for the 2011 honors, while Oxford went with an off-key head scratcher, squeezed middle, that nonplussed word-nerds in the states and prompted my colleague David Haglund to deplore the organization’s provincial judgment. (Haglund suggested occupy as a superior choice.) The pattern holds for 2010, too: That year, the ADS spotlighted app because the Smartphone doodads were becoming a kind of perceptual filter. The refrain “There’s an app for that” applied to everything, to the point where a social activity without an app seemed as strange as a person without a shadow. But Oxford reached for low-hanging fruit with refudiate, a Palin coinage no richer in irony or import than any of the other misstatements we hear from politicians on an almost daily basis.

As app proves, it’s not that the ADS is deaf to trendy computer jargon. In fact, their 2009 word of the year was tweet, and they recently crowned google the word of the decade. But these interwebby terms have proved durable. And at least we know how to pronounce them.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 



The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The Feds Have Declared War on Encryption—and the New Privacy Measures From Apple and Google

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You

It spreads slowly.

These “Dark” Lego Masterpieces Are Delightful and Evocative


Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.


Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Activists Are Trying to Save an Iranian Woman Sentenced to Death for Killing Her Alleged Rapist

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?