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The year in words: 2013

By Katherine Connor Martin

Oxford’s lexicographers use the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a 2-billion-word corpus of contemporary English usage gathered since 2000, to provide accurate descriptions of how English is used around the world in real life. A corpus is simply a collection of texts that are richly tagged so that they can be analyzed using software (we use the Sketch Engine). The OEC helps us answer questions like “how common is the spelling analog (as opposed to analogue) in British English?” or “what are the most common objects of the verb curate?” It is intended to serve as a synchronic corpus of English, allowing us to analyze contemporary English usage across different regions, in different subject areas, in different registers, and in different types of text.

To better track changes in English as they are happening, OUP has recently set up a new corpus project, the New Monitor Corpus (NMC), to facilitate diachronic analysis. The NMC monitors more than 12,000 RSS feeds for articles in a broad range of categories, collecting and adding about 150 million words of English each month. This allows us to observe changes over time in one-month increments, enabling editors to identify new words and patterns as they emerge, and distinguish which items seem to be trending towards widespread currency.

Although the NMC was established specifically to identify new words and meanings, it also provides an interesting window onto social trends, by showing us what is being discussed in a wide variety of online sources, including newspapers and blogs. The list below highlights one word each month which experienced an identifiable usage spike, apparently due to current events. (Frequencies are expressed as a rate per billion words.)


In late 2012, the US media was consumed with speculation about the financial cataclysm that might occur if Congress failed to stop several scheduled economic changes, including automatic spending cuts and the expiration of tax cuts, from happening at once. Monthly usage of the term peaked in December 2012, at almost 45K/billion, with fears of approaching doom reaching a fever pitch. Ultimately, a compromise bill partially resolving the crisis was signed into law on 2 January. Mentions of fiscal cliff fell off precipitously afterwards; eventually new budgetary crises reared their heads, and Americans began discussing them instead.



On the morning of February 15, a large meteor exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia, strewing meteorites over a large area and causing injuries and property damage. Unsurprisingly, the month of February saw a huge spike in the frequency of the word meteor. The uptick in August is probably due to the annual Perseid meteor shower.



The opportunity to use the word papabile, meaning ‘a prelate worthy or likely to be elected as pope’, doesn’t come up very often, but 2013 was one such time. The word’s usage began to climb in February, when Pope Benedict resigned, and then peaked during the conclave at which Pope Francis was elected. Since then, it has largely dropped out of use, waiting to be dusted off by the world’s English speakers during the next papal conclave.



On 15 April 2013, the Boston Marathon was cut short when two bombs were detonated at the finish line. In the aftermath of the tragedy and the ensuing manhunt, our corpus registered a significant increase in usage of the word bomber.



Why the sudden increase in teardrops in May? The Eurovision Song Contest. The winner was Denmark’s song “Only Teardrops”, sung by Emmelie de Forest.



The Guardian published the first story in its series based on classified documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden on 1 June 2013. Increased usage of the word persisted through the summer.



Baby is a very common word in English, so to spark a discernible increase in its usage, a single event would have to be discussed a lot. The birth of Prince George of Cambridge on 22 July 2013 appears to meet that standard, with speculation about the “royal baby” contributing to an upward trend in overall usage of the word.



A noticeable increase in usage of the word chemical can be observed starting in August, when Ghouta, in Syria, was hit by rockets containing sarin gas. Usage increased still further in the following month, as government officials in the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries debated their response to the chemical attacks.



In September, researchers confirmed that NASA’s Voyager 1 probe had officially entered interstellar space in August 2012, leaving our solar system. It is the first man-made object to do so.



In British English, the word shutdown tends to be associated with things like machinery, systems, and sports leagues. In American English, the government shutdown, in which the government ceases to function because of a lack of approved funding, weighs heaviest in the evidence. This was particularly true in October of this year, when the United States experienced its first federal government shutdown since 1996.


November and December

We won’t be able to evaluate the data collected for November and December until those months are complete. (A cynic might question how the year can be declared over with more than a month remaining.) Nonetheless, we can speculate on what the future holds. It seems likely that we will remember November for its association with the terrible tragedy of the Philippine typhoon. December’s words remain wholly unspoken, so we are free to hope for a more optimistic lexical emblem. Peace, perhaps.

Katherine Connor Martin is Head of US Dictionaries, Oxford University Press. She is a regular contributor to the OxfordWords blog.

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is ‘selfie’. The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a word, or expression, that has attracted a great deal of interest during the year to date and judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. Learn more about Word of the Year in our FAQ, on the OUPblog, and on the OxfordWords blog.

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Image credits: All word charts created by Oxford Dictionaries using the New Monitor Corpus.

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