Remember when the word of the year was Newt? As in a verb, referring to Gingrich? Sure, you do, because the "words of the year" identified annually have enormous staying power. Not! ("Not" was word of the year in 1992.)

Every year, the American Dialect Society identifies that word, its word of the year, and makes predictions about how new terminology will fare over time. The relaunch of Google's Ngram tool last week offered a unique opportunity: Now we could see how good the ADS' predictive powers are. The short answer: Good, because they cheat.

Looking back through the ADS' past winners is like looking through the nation's embarrassing yearbook. The "most amazing" new word in 1990 was bungee jumping. In 1998, the "most outrageous" was ejaculation proclamation, in re: Bill Clinton.

But what we were really interested in were three categories from the ADS: word of the year, most and least likely to succeed, and most useful. (Why usefulness doesn't translate to or overlap with "success" isn't entirely clear.) So we took each phrase, ran it through the revised Ngram tool, and extracted the data for the years 1980 to 2008. (We've written about the tool before. In short, it searches books over history for the occurrence of certain words. The new version lets you search by part of speech and introduce new wildcards.)

If you take away nothing else from our analysis, make it this. The things that we think are important at any given moment usually aren't. Two decades of picking out key political signifiers indicates that political moments are generally just that: moments. More often than not, they're like topical Halloween costumes, entertaining for a limited time only.

1990

Word of the year
bushlips

Most likely to succeed
notebook PC

Most useful
---

Least likely
peace dividend

"Bushlips." That was the word of the year. The idea, of course, was that the "No new taxes" pledge by George H. W. Bush would lead to a rush of people using the word "bushlips" to describe people that, um, lie? Apparently? Anyway, no one ever used that term, so it doesn't show up in search results at all. (That's why some searches are excluded from the graphs below. Too few appearances.) People barely remember the first president Bush, much less the nonsense that cost him reelection.

Here we do see our first instance of an important phenomenon: The ADS' "most likely to succeed" word does worse over the long run than its least likely word.

(There was no "most useful" word in 1990.)

1991

Word of the year
mother of all

Most likely to succeed
rollerblade

Most useful
in your face

Least likely
massively parallel

"Mother of all," like many of the words on this list, derives from the political moment. Here, it's a reference to the First Gulf War. It did fine as a phrase over time, though you'll notice it was already in fairly regular use.

Again, the least likely to succeed word (well, phrase) did better than the most likely to. At least in books, which is what Ngrams track. More geeks write books than Rollerbladers, apparently. 

As of 2008, the most common phrase of these four was "in your face," which is perfect.

1992

Word of the year
not

Most likely to succeed
snail mail

Most useful
grunge

Least likely
gender feminism

This is my favorite. Not — as in, remember how great those jokes from the early '90s were? Not! — was the most important word of 1992. It also allowed us our first specialized Ngram search. We looked for any time not appeared at the end of a sentence. Which almost never happened, because we got over that stupid joke format quickly.

Grunge did indeed prove to be the most useful.

1993

Word of the year
information superhighway

Most likely to succeed
like

Most useful
a ___ thing

Least likely
mosaic culture

Again, the advanced Ngram tool came in handy. The a ___ thing formulation (as in, "it's a black thing") can be approximated as "a * thing." The most common phrase of that form? "A good thing." Further down the list, "a damn thing."

We'd also like to note that information superhighway, an extremely dumb way of referring to the internet, came and went faster than the 28.8 baud modem.

1994

Word of the year
cyber

Most likely to succeed
gingrich

Most useful
---

Least likely
---

What a great year this was! The word gingrich as a verb! The ADS defines it: "to deal with government agencies, policies, and people in the manner of U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich." Can you imagine? Who would use that! We searched Ngram for both Gingrich as a verb and not — only the latter of which yielded anything. 

Newt was no doubt pleased to be paired with the word cyber, which had much more staying power.

1995

Word of the year
newt

Most likely to succeed
world wide web

Most useful
EQ

Least likely
Vanna White shrimp

Yes, again with the Newt. Now, the Speaker's first name becomes a verb, meaning "to make aggressive changes as a newcomer." "Hey, man, you really newted your first day on the job," no one said ever. And that stupid word relegated world wide web to second-tier status! 

Now let's talk about "least likely to succeed." A Vanna White shrimp is a big shrimp used in restaurants. This is what we meant when we said that the ADS cheated. Of course no one will ever use that phrase; it doesn't even make sense. But then again, it's still more appealing than using newt as a verb. "Welcome to Bubba Gump's! You really newted your deveining tonight!"

1996

Word of the year
soccer mom

Most likely to succeed
drive-by

Most useful
dot

Least likely
Mexican hustle

Now we see a limitation of the Ngram. There's no way for us to separate out dot in the sense the ADS intended — the period in an internet address — from the other uses of the word. So it dominates. But then, compared to the other words, that's not a surprise.

Mexican hustle, by the way, is another name for the macarena, which, the ADS notes, "is not Mexican." Cool phrase, guys.

1997

Word of the year
millennium bug

Most likely to succeed
DVD

Most useful
-razzi

Least likely
heaven-o

Since we couldn't evaluate -razzi as a suffix, we swapped in paparazzi. But that didn't matter; the dominant word this year was indeed DVD. Within the next 10 years or so, it may no longer be the top word.

What's heaven-o, you ask? That's what people who oppose Hell say instead of hello. (No one does this.) 

1998

Word of the year
e-

Most likely to succeed
---

Most useful
---

Least likely
Lewinsky

The prefix e- was indeed popular for quite some time. It's faded recently, but the Ngram tool won't let us evaluate that. So we substituted in email.

Lewinsky was also intended to be a verb. If you are older than 12, you can guess what it means. You can't actually see it on that chart, but there was a tiny blip of people using it as a verb, because, you know, late night TV and so on.

1999

Word of the year
Y2K

Most likely to succeed
dot-com

Most useful
---

Least likely
Milly

Milly wins, beating the odds! To be fair, the ADS thought the term Milly, referring to a dance created in Chicago to honor the millenium wouldn't last, not just the name over all. And how wrong they were! Kids today switch back and forth from twerking to the Milly to the Mexican Hustle like it's no big deal.

Y2K was a good word of the year, since people stopped using it after that year. And dramatically so.

2000

Word of the year
chad

Most likely to succeed
muggle

Most useful
civil union

Least likely
kablokeys

Chad always does decently, given that it's a wonderful name for a bro. In 2000, the term referred to the little pieces of paper that ensured George W. Bushlips won the presidency, but that gets lost in the Ngram search.

Interestingly, the "succeed" and "useful" categories were pretty accurate. Muggles is still ubiquitous; civil union still important. Kablokeys is probably not actually a word.

2001

Word of the year
9/11

Most likely to succeed
9/11

Most useful
facial profiling

Least likely
Osamaniac

This was mostly an interesting exercise for Ngram. September 11 and 9/11 both appear for differing reasons in a lot of books. But the former saw a huge increase following the terror attacks, as the more formal way of referring to the events.

An Osamaniac was supposedly a woman sexually attracted to Osama bin Laden, which was not at all a tacky thing to include on this list.

2002

Word of the year
weapons of mass destruction

Most likely to succeed
blog

Most useful
google

Least likely
neuticles

Perhaps the best, most prescient list. Blog and Google are still used daily, of course, and their use is growing. Even neuticles, a brand name for artificial dog testicles, is still in use among certain audiences.

2003

Word of the year
metrosexual

Most likely to succeed
SARS

Most useful
---

Least likely
tomacco

Remember metrosexuals? Why did that need a term? Somewhat surprisingly, SARS did much better in the literature, perhaps because the books that Google indexes include some that are more likely to discuss disease outbreaks than disease symptoms.

Tomacco was a Simpsons joke.

2004

Word of the year
red states

Most likely to succeed
red states

Most useful
phish

Least likely
stalkette

The ADS was a little last to phish, though, to be fair, they mean the word in the malicious-email sense, not the bitchin'-1990s-jam-band sense. Either way, red states was far more common, and its use is growing.

stalkette is a female stalker. Someone at the ADS had bad breakups in 2001 and in 2004.

2005

Word of the year
truthiness

Most likely to succeed
sudoku

Most useful
podcast

Least likely
pope-squatting

The only one of these words that isn't somewhat ridiculous is podcastTruthiness returns the ADS to its tradition of sort-of-political words of the year (but was really an attempt to get attention from Colbert fans.) Sudoku was fun for a while. Pope-squatting is not what you think it is. It involves new popes and web domains.

2006

Word of the year
to be plutoed

Most likely to succeed
YouTube

Most useful
climate canary

Least likely
grup

Pluto, kids may not realize, used to be a planet. In 2006, it had that rank revoked, and the ADS figured people would smoothly slip to be plutoed into their everyday lingo. As in: "I can't believe that guy got plutoed after he newted!"

Climate canary, an indicator of imminent environmental distress did surprisingly poorly. Grup, referring to a "Gen. X-er who doesn't act his or her age" did unsurprisingly poorly. (That ADS guy's girlfriend was probably a Gen X-er.)

2007

Word of the year
subprime

Most likely to succeed
---

Most useful
green-

Least likely
strand-in

Let's set aside the prefix green-, referring to all things enviro, and the word subprime, a fitting winner of the top title. The ADS defines strand-in as a "protest duplicating being stranded inside an airplane on a delayed flight." What the hell does that mean? What is this a reference to? I was alive in 2007, and this is baffling.

2008

Word of the year
bailout

Most likely to succeed
shovel-ready

Most useful
Barack Obama

Least likely
PUMA

After all was said and done the PUMAs (Hillary fans; "party unity, my ass!") triumphed over Barack Obama, perhaps thanks to the fact that there are animals called pumas. As for bailout, it became less frequently used in the run-up to the recession.


So those are all of the years leading up to 2008, the last date Ngrams can search. Now let's tackle the real question: Which word of the year was used the most? Which "most likely to succeed" word had the most success? The least success? Your answers:

Word of the year

The most common at this point is September 11, overtaking the ever-popular bailout.

Most likely to succeed

This goes in waves. First, world wide web. Then, DVD. Now, growing fast, blog.

Least likely to succeed

These all got plutoed.


Ben Zimmer, who chairs the New Words Committee for the ADS, offers his thoughts.

As an Ngram enthusiast and Chair of the New Words Committee for the American Dialect Society, I had an obvious interest in your analysis. It's quite true that some of ADS's choices over the years, from "bushlips" to "plutoed," are cringeworthy in retrospect (and may have been cringeworthy at the time, to be honest). Fortunately, we don't take ourselves too seriously as ultimate arbiters of lexical success, though I think the Most Likely to Succeed and Most Useful winners have actually fared pretty well. And many of our recent overall WOTY champs -- especially techie terms like "tweet," "app," and "hashtag" -- are clearly here to stay, even though we pick an overall winner according to its zeitgeistiness rather than its projected staying power.

One important caveat for using the Ngram Viewer for tracking the frequency of words and phrases is that post-2000, the composition of the underlying Google Books data changes significantly. As explained in the Culturomics FAQ, after 2000 the Ngram dataset gets skewed toward books that have been provided from publishers, which affects the overall corpus composition and bends the graphs in funny ways. That may explain some of the tailoffs in the line plots, though of course we can't hold it responsible for the failure of "plutoed" et al.

Image credits: Ross from Friends via headoverfeels.com, email via salesonfilm.blogspot.com, still from The Simpsons via ghoster-coaster.tumblr.com.