Can you summarize 2013 in a single word? Dictionary.com, which touts itself as the most-visited online dictionary, thinks so — and the one it’s chosen, thank heavens, is not “twerk.”
Instead, it’s a word which, pretty much by definition, is deeply serious: “privacy.”
In an infographic it prepared to explain its choice — see below — Dictionary.com itemized 30 privacy-related news stories from 2013. They include by far the biggest one of the year: Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s sweeping covert surveillance of Internet traffic. But the list also covers everything from the discovery that it’s possible to recover Snapchat photos after they’ve disappeared to the incident in which a Seattle eatery kicked out a patron who was wearing Google Glass.
Unlike “twerk,” “privacy” is about the furthest thing possible from a neologism, but Dictionary.com said that was a point in its favor. “etymologically, ‘privacy’ is such an interesting word,” says Rebekah Otto, head of content for Dictionary.com. She points out that it derived from privatus, the Latin word for those things that were not publicis, because they didn’t belong to the Roman people.
Though “privacy” has a rich history, it’s also a word with implications that are subject to ongoing change. “Our definition of privacy reads: ‘The state of being free from intrusion or disturbance,’” Otto says. “As we were considering this, we realized that it’s incomplete in a way. The big question is, free from whom? Is it the other person in the restaurant wearing Google Glass, or the NSA, or your Waze app, or other things that you might be interacting with on a frequent basis?”
The fact that Dictionary.com chose a word with such resonance in the digital age isn’t a coincidence. “We’re the first online dictionary — we’ll be 19 years old next year,” says Michele Turner, the company’s CEO. “We think about what’s happening in the online world a lot.”
Of course, there are other criteria you could use to determine the word of the year. And there’s no shortage of other wordmongering organizations competing with Dictionary.com’s pick. Last month, Oxford Dictionaries announced its word of the year, “selfie.” The first known use of the term as shorthand for “self portrait” dates to 2002, but Oxford says that usage of the term has increased 17,000 percent in the past year.
Then there’s Merriam-Webster, which chooses its word of the year based on the volume of searches at its site. This year’s winner is “science” — like “privacy,” a word with roots stretching back to Ancient Rome.
The American Dialect Society hasn’t announced its word of the year yet — it does so in January of the following year — but it gravitates towards ones that are newish, but not so new that they might turn out to be a fad that’s about to fizzle. For 2012, it selected “hashtag,” a term coined by Stowe Boyd in 2007.
Dictionary.com is a relative newcomer to word-of-the-year pronouncements, and its approach seems to have evolved: In 2011, it made the willfully eccentric move of naming a word most notable for its utter obscurity: “tergiversate,” essentially a $10 synonym for another perfectly good word, “equivocate.”
In this year’s “privacy,” the company has a word of the year that will make sense to just about anyone. Matter of fact, it already feels like a formidable contender for word of the decade.
Here’s Dictionary.com’s infographic on its pick, which doubles as a handy — and sobering — review of the year in privacy issues.