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

93093860

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.
Advertisement

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. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.