A telling part of our modern recapping tradition is choosing “words of the year.” In 1789, lexicographers probably would have gone with guillotine. In 1912, iceberg surely would have been a contender. And for 2012, Oxford Dictionaries settled on GIF.
That’s GIF the verb, derived from GIF the file extension. These days, people often GIF snippets of movies or speeches to create funny little moving pictures on Tumblrs like this one. “The GIF, a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, turned 25 this year,” notes Oxford University Press’ Katherine Martin, “but like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier.” (You know, like Betty White.)
Runners-up included superstorm, super PAC and Eurogeddon, shorthand for the feared financial collapse of countries using the Euro. Oxford Dictionaries, a trendy scion of the honorable Oxford English Dictionary, also announced their British “Word of the Year”: omnishambles. Officially defined as a situation “characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations,” this pithy counterpart to Murphy’s Law has become a favorite in the U.K. for describing politics.
Last year, Oxford Dictionaries chose squeezed middle, a reference to people between the super-rich and super-poor who are supposed to be particularly vulnerable to financial shifts. It was, as one observer put it, a “sober list for sober times.” The phrase told us that the economy, and the struggles it caused, were the number-one story in 2011, at least so far as one band of wordsmiths was concerned.
So what does GIF tell us about 2012? Given that dictionary additions and buzzword lists have been dominated by technology-related terms in recent years, it may just be a sign that things are getting back to normal. Of course, the runners-up bring a certain amount of sobriety to the field. But the selection still seems to herald a post-recession era — a world where instead of counting pennies, we’re free to goof off on Reddit all day.