The Absolute Final, Last Word of the Year: Because

Because grammar.

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Crowning a word of the year is so hot these days. An increasing number of dictionaries and websites each churn out their specimens, trying to encapsulate the zeitgeist—or at least get some good, free PR. But one group was anointing a “WOTY” long before it was cool: the American Dialect Society, a cadre of linguists, lexicographers and other lexically-oriented souls that holds their big annual meeting in the first days of January each year.

A few days ago in Minneapolis, attendees made cases for slash, Obamacare and selfie. Yet the votes ultimately came in for because—not the boring old conjunction because, but a new form that is illustrating language’s ability to keep it fresh. They voted for the because that a headline writer uses when he pens, “The Senate changes its rules, because politics.” Rather than being followed by the traditional of or a whole clause, this because is typically followed by one word, be it noun, verb, adjective or something else. Because nachos. Because want. Because science. It’s punchy, irreverent and such a different kind of usage that linguists don’t even know what to call it. “We may be talking about a new class of words,” says Ben Zimmer, a sociolinguist who presided over the voting.

Requiring a cumbersome explanation is clearly small potatoes next to that kind of innovation when it comes to winning votes among the erudite. “You get a bunch of linguists in a room and say, ‘Hey, look at this old function word that’s being used in brand new ways,’ and that piques their interest,” says Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com. “It has a kind of child-like quality to it as well, that makes it very playful, intentionally tweaking grammar in a way that kids often do.”

Zimmer calls this usage of because “Internet-inspired grammar.” And any Tumblr connoisseur should have been able to guess those origins. Like much Internet speak, this form is based on dropping elements that a listener or reader would traditionally expect. Digital communication, after all, turned thanks into thx into tx into [thumbs up emoji here]. The new because echoes the space constraints of social media and the bare-bones language of hashtags.

There’s also a subversive quality to this because, in how self-consciously one is defying English teachers everywhere. And like most slang or Internet jargon, there is a suggestion of “shared understanding,” as Zimmer puts it, especially when it’s used to mock a political perspective or simple, reductive rationales. Both reader and writer have to be close to the same page, for instance, to understand a Wonkette headline like, “Georgia Governor Nathan Deal won’t endorse black teens and white teens dancing together, because liberals.”

For early adopters, the self-conscious, snarky quality of the new because may already be getting a little tired; the trend came in far from last place in TIME’s word banishment poll this year. But Zimmer notes that if the form really catches on, as it seems to be, self-conscious usage could transition into natural usage: A new generation of Americans could grow up thinking it is perfectly acceptable to explain oneself by saying “Because waffles.” While the cool kids often drop something that becomes too widespread and thus uncool—like slang that your mom is throwing around—the versatility of the new because suggests it may have staying power. Because pretty much anything can go right here.

For those who missed it, here is a roundup of some other major Word-of-the-Year selections:

Oxford Dictionaries: selfie

Merriam-Webster: science

Dictionary.com: privacy

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here

1 comments
deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Katy, thanks for post and your Weds. Words series overall; here's to another great year. YOU are among TIME's best writers, and that list includes Catherine Mayer and many of the swampland teammates, and that's saying a lot. Because.  

As for 2014 words, I will nominate early the word "felinity."  Felinity (n): the quality of being a cat. It's not really a neologism or neopolism: the comic strip 9 Chickweed Lane published a book, "Hallmarks of Felinity" years ago about the cat Solange. But given the growing popularity of cats on the Internet - and I bet that 2014 will be an even bigger year for cats online -  this word may yet come into vogue. When we see TIME, WaPo, and the NYT use "felinity" on a regular basis, then we've made it big time at last.