As 2014 goes up in smoke, vape emerges triumphant

Some words, once granted formal recognition and sometimes long before, are here to stay, evidence that English, in common with other tongues, writes Colin Randall

Whether it's called ISIL, ISIS or Daesh, the radical Islamic group has become a household word in 2014. Photo: Edlib News Network / AP
Powered by automated translation

Every year produces buzzwords and a chronicler of the distinguishing features of 2014 could be forgiven for thinking selfie was a prime example.

The chronicler would be wrong. It takes only a little basic research to establish that this term for a self-portrait, typically taken using the camera function of a mobile phone, is no such thing, but has been with us for a dozen years.

Indeed, 2014 is not even the year in which selfie came into its own, as a phenomenon spreading like wildfire to epitomise the “me generation”.

The proliferation was already underway to such an extent that Oxford Dictionaries named it the word of the previous year.

What is true for those who harrumph at the appearance of irritating new words, is that this one has become particularly hard to avoid. At times this year, it has been as if everyone was photographing themselves, from teenagers on nights out to celebrities, or people in the company of celebrities.

But the first use of the word has been traced to 2002, when a young Australian, Nathan Hope, went online to post a photograph showing his injured mouth after a drunken fall at a friend’s birthday party.

As for the me generation, that phrase entered the vocabulary in the 1970s, when the American author Tom Wolfe used it to describe a culture of narcissism among young people. And what were members of this generation also known as? Baby boomers, a term dating from much earlier and referring to the relatively privileged young born in the period following the Second World War.

If selfies imply a degree of flippancy, there are serious examples of language development. This year, political leaders and the media have grappled with such issues as the terminology of extremism.

There are very good reasons for feeling that giving respectability to murderous, land-grabbing private armies is, well, unrespectable. So, rather than glorify one particular army by using the designation it prefers, Islamic State, many use the acronyms ISIL or ISIS.

In France, a determined effort was made in 2014 to persuade the media and politicians to refer to Daesh (Daech in French), since this was considered a form that has some power to diminish what The National styles ISIL.

As discussed in this column in October, Daesh also derives from an acronym, which is the transliterated Arabic equivalent of ISIL but includes, with some accuracy, an allusion to “treading underfoot”, trampling or crushing.

A glance at the Oxford Dictionary’s choices for the words of 2014 – which can mean those reaching prominence this year even if coined earlier – reveals some truly ugly contenders. Some were previously unknown to me. They include slacktivism, for signing up with the least effort to a cause, typically via social media; normcore, for being fashionably unfashionable in clothing style, and bae, street slang for a romantic partner.

But the winner is vape. If you do not smoke, this word may have passed you by, too. It describes the act of inhaling and exhaling the vapour produced by an electronic cigarette or similar, and can also be used as a noun for the cigarette itself.

The word has been in use since as long ago as 1983, long before artificial smoking devices were commercially available.

Its choice by Oxford honours not only its vastly increased common usage but the lexicon of ensuing derivates; you may buy your smoking substitute, for example, at a vaporium.

Reactionaries the English-speaking world over may protest all they wish. These words, once granted formal recognition and sometimes long before, are here to stay, evidence that English, in common with other tongues, is a living language.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National