Why I am concerned that the "Word of the Year" is an emoji, not a word

I was incredibly disappointed to read that Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji, not a word as their “Word of the Year”. This year the title goes to the “face with tears of joy” emoji.


Those are not tears of joy, those are tears of frustration as I see more language slip away.

In a way, it’s not entirely Oxford Dictionaries’ fault. Each year with their selection they attempt the take the pulse of society as a whole and choose a word that characterizes what we were doing in that year, or according to this Time article to “sum up who we were in 2015”.

Sadly, I think they got it right. We are not using vocabulary as much as we used to. And that is a problem.

The substitution of symbol for word is just more evidence that our vocabularies are shrinking.

This is the first time a symbol has been called “Word of the Year” and I fear by doing so the Oxford Dictionaries have set a dangerous precedent. What is scary is that a dictionary, a book full of words, definitions, meanings, pronunciations, the ultimate road map to language is sanctioning a downward spiral of declining language use.

I get it. Symbols are quicker, easier, more concise. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words, or in this case, five. Also, it is harder for symbols to offend anyone or everyone. I understand that but is it worth risking our collective intellect?

Scholars have also noted our shrinking vocabularies and decline in overall language usage for some time now. This piece from E.D. Hirsch, Jr. “A Wealth of Words” summarizes recent research on this topic, including a study conducted by Cornell scholar Donald Hayes that ties declining SAT scores to watered-down vocabulary, not socioeconomic factors. From the article, “Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.”

The implication this has for the future intellectual growth of our society as a whole is profound. Simply put, our children need vocabulary to succeed in school and in life. “If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth.”

The study of language-intensive disciplines like the humanities are under attack these days. STEM here, STEM there, STEM everywhere. In the computer and information age, yes, math and science are incredibly important but just as important is the ability to communicate those increasingly complex ideas and concepts. This is where diversity of language could be incredibly applicable but instead we choose watered down, less complicated words.

Reading builds vocabulary, but in recent years fewer American adults actually read books in any format, print, electronic or audio. The Pew Research Center has been tracking this over the past few years and found that at the beginning of 2015, only 72% had read at least one book over the past twelve months, meaning that 28% did not read any books. That percentage is down from 79% in 2011.

Centuries ago, one role of pictures and symbols was to inform since most of the population was illiterate. I really hope we aren’t headed back to those dark ages.

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