RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's that time again, the American Dialect Society will soon vote on its Word of the Year. Last year it was hashtag. For this year's words that popped, we reached the society's new words guy, linguist Ben Zimmer.
BEN ZIMMER: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So this year it seems that everyone is coalescing around one word. That word is selfie. It's so ubiquitous that I wonder if that is one of your top words.
ZIMMER: It is and, you know, there are other groups that announced their own word of the year selections. Oxford dictionary is one of them and they announced earlier that they thought that selfie should be the word of the year. And I think it's a strong choice, that term for a self-portrait that shows up on social media, has really taken off his past year.
We even saw all sorts of variations on the theme, so not only were their selfies but there were also shelfies - photos showing off the contents of your bookshelf. And so, it became so popular that people started coming up with all sorts of different variations on that theme.
MONTAGNE: It also got a lot of attention because some pretty famous people were taking selfies. The pope, for one - or it was allowing someone to take a selfie of him and these young people.
ZIMMER: That true. A selfie doesn't necessarily have to include just one person. So there was the famous papal selfie where Pope Francis posed briefly for a shot with someone. And then, he of course, there was selfiegate which happened at the memorial service for President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Where the Danish prime minister snapped a picture with President Obama. And so that that created its own little mini scandal which helped to propel selfie even further into the popular lexicon.
MONTAGNE: There was another word that got used a lot that might get a lot of people also rolling their eyes, and that was twerk.
ZIMMER: Yes, twerk. Well, like or not, pretty much everyone got introduced to that term back in August, thanks to Miley Cyrus's notorious appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards, where she did her own version of twerking - this rump shaking dance - that has actually been around for about 20 years. It dates back all the way to the New Orleans bounce music scene of circa 1993, right around the time that Miley Cyrus was born.
And so, it was this collection of events around that word twerk or twerking that got people really worked up. It was almost a twerkageddon, I think.
ZIMMER: Since then people have calmed down a bit about twerking. And I think we will remember that as just a funny, little memento from 2013, rather than this Earth-shaking event.
MONTAGNE: Well, Ben, what is your personal favorite this year?
ZIMMER: This year, I'm partial to a phrasal verb actually. This is a two-word phrase and that's OK to consider for Word of the Year. And the verb I'm thinking of is lean in. That was used as a book title by Sheryl Sandberg who's the CEO of Facebook. And in the book, she's urging women to be more assertive, to pursue their professional goals in a way where they're not just leaning back but they're leaning in.
And previously that term had been used in all sorts of different sports, everything from sea kayaking to snow boarding, where that was the advice for how you should physically move your body. And it became a kind of a metaphor for just not holding back. And it's really been interesting to see how that expression, lean in - thanks to that book title - has now sort of entered the conversation to talk about women in the workplace and how they should assert themselves.
And so, I like that one even though it's technically two words and not one.
MONTAGNE: Ben Zimmer is chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society. He's also language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.
ZIMMER: Thank you, always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.