‘Because’ is the 2013 Word of the Year, because woo! Such win

Here’s a fun bit of news. In Minneapolis last night the American Dialect Society (ADS) declared because its Word of the Year 2013. Going up against topical heavyweights like selfie, Bitcoin, Obamacare, and twerk, the humble conjunction-turned-maybe-preposition proved a surprising and emphatic winner with 127 votes.

Well, surprising to some – in a post I wrote for Macmillan Dictionary Blog before Christmas, I named because X my word/phrase of the year. I didn’t dwell on it because I’ve already written about it at length, in ‘Because’ has become a preposition, because grammar, where I described it as a “succinct and expressive” innovation.

That post on because X (the title of which I regret) ended up getting quite a lot of attention, thanks in part to Megan Garber’s follow-up for the Atlantic, which spread to various other news and aggregator sites. It also stoked considerable debate because even linguists disagree about because‘s grammatical identity in the construction.

It’s sometimes called because NOUN, but I avoid this because it also licenses verbs, adjectives, and interjections; see my earlier post for examples. As Ben Zimmer put it, 2013 saw because “[explode] with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use”, while his Word Routes report says it’s “fitting that a bunch of language scholars would celebrate such a linguistically innovative form”.

stan carey - doge meme - wow, such win, because grammar, so amaze, much usage, very language

The American Dialect Society’s WOTY event is the biggie for language nerds, not least because it has a range of interesting categories. A couple of days ago I emailed the ADS with my nominations, which I then posted on Twitter:

A new category this year was Most Productive, which was dominated by affixes and libfixes like –splaining and –shaming. I was glad least untruthful won Most Euphemistic, and disappointed that catfish trumped doge for Most Creative. See the ADS press release for all the nominations and vote counts, and Ben Zimmer’s post for commentary.

Because also won Most Useful, closely beating slash in the latter’s new guise as a coordinating conjunction. I wrote briefly and approvingly about this use of slash last year, and I’d like to have seen the honours shared. But impossible, because temporal asymmetry, so whatever. If this slash keeps spreading, though, its day slash night will come.

I’ll be returning to the subject of ungrammatical wordplay memes – why they appeal, what motivates them, and so on – in a later post. Because such fascinate, and very language.

Update 1: 

I’ve been waiting for someone to analyse the grammar of because X, because there’s a lot of uncertainty over whether it’s acting as a preposition, and I’m not qualified to adjudicate. Also, in my earlier post on because X I noted that it wasn’t just because behaving this way: so, also, but, thus et al. were doing so too.

Now, at All Things Linguistic, Gretchen McCulloch has posted a very helpful deconstruction of the construction [and see the comments on her post for discussion]: Why the new “because” isn’t a preposition (but is actually cooler):

It’s not that because is newly a preposition: depending on your definition, it’s either still not a preposition or it always has been. Instead, it’s that subordinating conjunctions as a class are appearing in a new type of construction, that is, with interjectional complements in addition to the prepositional phrases and clauses that we’ve seen for a long time. Harder to explain maybe, but the data’s very robust and the results are pretty cool.

Interjectional complements doesn’t make for snappy headlines like new preposition does, but that’s immaterial. I find Gretchen’s analysis persuasive, and the discussions she’s had with other linguists (some are linked from her post) suggest a degree of consensus. Competing hypotheses might emerge, but I’m gravitating around this one for now.

Update 2:

At Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum takes polite but firm issue with McCulloch’s interpretation, in a post on the promiscuity of prepositions:

[T]he mistake of trusting a standard dictionary definition of “preposition” has misled All Things Linguistic (and even Stan Carey to some extent), just like it misleads everyone else.

Also on this topic, Neal Whitman has a good post at Visual Thesaurus in which he explains why because was awarded WOTY, and how different grammatical schools of thought mean there are different ways of interpreting because X:

So yes, because is a preposition, but not on account of this new usage. But there’s still the question of exactly what kind of complement this particular prepositional flavor of because takes. . . . The freshest examples of because X don’t fit McCulloch’s rule that X can stand alone, and they’re not used ironically.

At the Dictionary.com blog, Jane Solomon summarises reaction to the new construction, ponders its origin and grammar, and wonders what we should call it:

There is currently not any sort of consensus among linguists over the part of speech of this new because, though this might change as the discussion continues. I personally feel that because x is the safest moniker for the time being. As far as the part of speech goes, the grammar classification might further shift as English speakers play with and develop the new uses of because x.

Tyler Schnoebelen at the Idibon blog has done some serious number-crunching on this, analysing twenty-something thousand tweets for patterns of because X (the top X? Yolo). For stats, laughs, and useful academic links, read his post ‘Innovating because innovation.’

More discussion and links at Language Log’s ‘ADS WOTY: “Because”‘; and Language Hat’s ‘Because (Prep).’

Photo of Kabosu by Atsuko Sato, modified because doge.

23 Responses to ‘Because’ is the 2013 Word of the Year, because woo! Such win

  1. M. Rose Barnett says:

    words are fun. I’ve been using BECAUSE for years! lol

  2. M. R. says:

    I’m old and crotchety. I don’t even like Australia’s own Macquarie Dictionary because (!) it keeps including new words that mean nothing to me. Sighh … I know I’m meant to keep up; but I feel there are already more than enough words for me to choose from. Can’t cope with the ungrammatical. Will keep reading, though …

  3. John Cowan says:

    M.R.: Relax. A ship needs both sails (or a motor) and an anchor. After a while, we stop being the sails and become the anchor.

  4. Stan says:

    M. Rose: Because X has been around a while, all right, but it seems to be only in the last year or two that it’s gone virtually mainstream.

    M. R.: Macquarie picks its WOTY in a few weeks’ time, as far as I know. I see the Australian National Dictionary Centre chose bitcoin, which strikes me as a reasonable choice. Certainly it can be hard to keep up, but a lot of the words nominated and selected are ephemeral, as a review of old winners makes clear.

    John: That’s a fine metaphor!

  5. John Cowan says:

    Dammit, I can’t find it now, but the other day I actually ran into a quotation from the mid-20C from an AAVE speaker, transcribed as because [of] NOUN, with the [of] supplied by the transcriber. So this form may well have deep roots in the AAVE community.

  6. “Because X” also functions as a literal translation of “por X” from Spanish. I have a pet theory that that might be it’s genesis.

  7. […] American Dialect Society has named because its 2013 Word of the Year (I called it in December) prompting renewed discussion of the word’s precise grammatical role in […]

  8. Stan says:

    John: Oh, that’s tantalising! If the source reappears, do let us know.

    Jesse: There’s also a similar structure in German (see this comment at Language Log for examples). So there are a few plausible origin stories floating around.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    In a year when young Canadian upstart teeny bopping pop-music sensation Carley Rae Jepsen rose to global pop cultural heights w/ her bubble-gummy, ubiquitously played über-hit tune, “Call Me Maybe”, a bit of a grammatically jarring title to this late ‘boomers’ ear, ’tis no wonder the word ‘because’… in conjunction w/ X-word, (whatever part of speech the language experts finally officially deem this construction), was chosen Word of the Year by the learned folk at the ADS.

    Because maybe, eh?

  10. […] to language “what grave robbers are to archeology” (the context: hatred of the newly popular because X phrase), and I tweeted it with a raised […]

  11. B Devlin says:

    So, has ‘due to’ gone the way of all flesh beacuse dumbing-down?

  12. Stan says:

    Alex: Because why not.

    B Devlin: No, I see it regularly. Owing to may be on the wane, though.

  13. pghRower says:

    yey! word of the year!

  14. B Devlin says:

    So why use ‘because X’ when there are perfectly good, grammatical alternatives? Are you also in favour of ‘my bad’ instead of ‘my fault’ and ‘a big ask’ in place of ‘a big demand’?

  15. Stan says:

    pghRower: That was my reaction too.

    B Devlin: It’s an alternative, with its own social and aesthetic motivations. I described a few of these in my earlier post on because X as a catchphrase. It’s not about to replace the standard construction. I don’t particularly like my bad or a big ask, and I don’t use them, but people are entitled to.

  16. B Devlin says:

    People are entitled to say ‘I seen’ and ‘I done’ as well; entitled, but wrong, because (of) recognised correct usage. Same thing goes for because, because I say so :)

  17. Claire Stokes says:

    I’m coming around to the ‘because x’ construction, just in time apparently. If it weren’t for you, Stan, I’d still be eons behind on this whole phenomena. And .. in Minneapolis! I missed that entirely until just now. Someday I hope my life can include more of the word-related things going on. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the dazzle of it all. With your fun posts I feel completely immersed in it all – grateful!

  18. Stan says:

    B Devlin: Not always wrong, no. Those constructions are non-standard, but that doesn’t equate to incorrect – they’re legitimate in some dialects. “Correctness” is not absolute and monolithic; it changes with context.

    Claire: There’s no telling whether because X will last the pace or prove to be a fad before fading. It may gradually become more generally acceptable, or it could remain largely limited to informal contexts. But regardless, it will be fun to see how it plays out, and I’m glad I could help keep you in the loop!

  19. […] Stan Carey selected ‘because X’ for its newish construction. (Go Stan!) […]

  20. […] Check your privilege and know thy selfie offers some thoughts on the words and phrases of 2013. It includes my own pick, because X, which anticipated the American Dialect Society’s selection. […]

  21. […] much-talked-about because X construction (in which X is something other than a full clause, such as a noun phrase, an […]

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