In a war of words, which will reign supreme in 2013: "selfie" or "science"?
In November, Oxford Dictionary deemed "selfie," defined as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website," its word of the year. But rival Merriam-Webster disagrees and has declared the word "science" — "knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation" — the winner.
"Selfie" and "science" aren't remotely similar words, so how did these dictionaries come up with such different results?
Merriam-Webster determined "science" to be the top word by analyzing approximately 100 million searches per month on its online dictionary, then detecting words with the greatest increase in searches compared with last year's results. On the other hand, Oxford Dictionary used software to scan Web content and identify a new word that captures the Zeitgeist and the cultural climate of 2013 (Oxford notes that usage of "selfie" has increased 17,000 percent since last year).
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Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster, said in a statement: "A wide variety of discussions centered on science this year, from climate change to educational policy. We saw heated debates about 'phony' science, or whether science held all the answers. It's a topic that has great significance for us. And it fascinates us — enough so that it saw a 176% increase in look-ups this year over last, and stayed a top look-up throughout the year."
While "science" is an old, accepted and established word, "selfie" is new, informal and nontraditional. "If you use the word 'selfie,' you are not actively involved in finding out more about that word, you are not conscious about that word as a word," Grant Barrett, co-host of NPR's "A Way with Words" and lexicographer, tells Yahoo Shine."The word is doing its job and not being talked about as a word." But, he contends, you do think about the various meanings of "science" as a word.
Merriam-Webster relied only on its own analytics to decide its word of the year. The increase in searches for "science" could be attributed to students researching the definition to use in their middle school lab reports, Barrett says. He added that Oxford, in its hopes of naming an of-the-moment word, possibly used subjective judgment and eliminated the words that have already proven their place in the lexicon and picked something with a little bit of sparkle and novelty.
Confused? Not to worry. To clarify, with "selfie," you take a duck-face photo of yourself and post it to Twitter with #selfie. It's an action without background, history or deeper context beyond what's happening that moment. The term "science," on the other hand, is abstract and could be linked to millions of things from political discussions about climate change to programs for science, technology, engineering, and math in schools.
Barrett wouldn't say definitively whether, in his expert opinion, "science" or "selfie" was a better pick, but he hopes that in 50 years when we look back at 2013, the words of the year, no matter what dictionary you prefer, will show a nutshell view of what was happening in 2013. And if that's the case, then maybe "twerk" (or perhaps "Miley Cyrus") should have won this year.