Emoji, -ism and Identity: The 2015 Words of the Year

Gender identity, social movements, and the changing way we communicate with each other all helped shape the list of words that dominated 2015. University of Chicago linguist Jason Riggle joins “Chicago Tonight” to talk about which words were big and why. He'll also talk about those flash-in-the-pan words (ahem, dadbod) that also made our list.

Below, see a slideshow of words of the year.


The Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2015 isn’t technically a word at all – it’s the emoji known as “face with tears of joy.” It’s commonly used in text messages to indicate that something is amusing or lighthearted. Oxford partnered with tech firm SwiftKey to track its usage, and wrote: “SwiftKey identified that  made up 20% of all the emojis used in the UK in 2015, and 17% of those in the US: a sharp rise from 4% and 9% respectively in 2014.”

Linguist Jason Riggle says the spike in awareness and usage of emojis is a sign of the times: Text messages allow near-instant communication via written English, so the language is adapting to allow people to better communicate nuance and emotion.

Below, watch a video depicting what emojis would like if they were used in real life.


Dictionary.com’s pick was identity, reflecting a year where Caitlyn Jenner announced her transition to the world and shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is The New Black” raked in awards. The online dictionary expanded its definition of identity to include the example of “gender identity.” Riggle also noted an interest in the gender-neutral prefix “Mx.” – an alternative to “Mr.” and “Ms.” – and more widespread usage of “they” as a singular noun alternative to “he” or “she.”

Linguist Grant Barrett from the American Dialect Society highlighted dadbod and deflategate as two of the year’s most popular words, referring respectively to an over-inflated physique and an under-inflated football.

Merriam-Webster didn’t choose a word at all, but the suffix –ism, “because a small group of words that share this three-letter ending triggered both high volume and significant year-over-year increase in lookups at Merriam-Webster.com. Taken together, these seven words (socialism, fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and terrorism) represent millions of individual dictionary lookups.”

Barrett also highlighted the hastags #woke and #staywoke, used on social media to indicate one’s awareness of social justice issues and an understanding of systemic prejudices. Riggle thought the social justice-minded word microaggression had a big year in 2015.

What’s your pick for 2015 word of the year? Share it in the comment section below!


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