'Vape' is Oxford's 2014 word of the year: Why it matters

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic
'Vape' is Oxford Dictionaries' word of the year for 2014

The word "vape" does not yet appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. But it likely will; on Monday, the editorial staff at Oxford Dictionaries named it the word of the year. It beat out a number of other neologisms, including "normcore," "slacktivism" and "indyref" (a reference to the recent referendum on Scottish independence) — the last in particular a coinage of the moment, which, like the vote to which it refers, has little, or questionable, staying power.

That’s the thing about the word of the year: It’s a linguistic beauty pageant. "Vape" was chosen because as Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford’s Dictionaries Division, explains in the Wall Street Journal, it “sat at the center of several rich cultural conversations: the debate over private versus community rights; regulation and public health; and our relationship to our visible vices. Given the booming e-cigarette market sector, expect to hear more from ‘vape’ in the years to come.”

Well, yes. All you have to do is count the green cross storefronts in my neighborhood to know that "vape" is not going anywhere.

Nonetheless, all of this raises an interesting question: How does language change? It may be true that "vape" has been around for a while — according to Oxford, it first appeared in a 1983 article — but is popularity really the best criterion? Or do we want our words to have more fortitude?

Earlier this fall, I tweeted (yes, another neologism) about my least favorite malapropism: the use of "transition" as a verb. Someone replied that it appeared as such in both the New Oxford Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English. That’s their right, I suppose, but I remain unswayed — for me, "transition" is (and always will be) a noun, just like "journal" or "impact." The dictionaries are wrong.

Still, how can we deny that language is also living, that it grows and changes as we do? "Internet," "google" (as, yes, a verb), even 2013’s word of the year, "selfie" — these have become part of the vernacular. "Vape" occupies a similar territory, a symbol of communication’s adaptability … and its evanescence.

A year and a half ago, researchers from England’s University of Reading announced the discovery of 23 “ultraconserved” words that had come down from an ancestral language 15,000 years in the past. These are root words, basic building blocks of language, and yet I can’t help thinking of all the countless others that did not survive.

In that regard, we cannot help but see language as elusive; even as it evolves, it disappears. Think about the buzzwords of the recent past — "dial-up," "chad," "Y2K," "refudiate" — for a sense of how quickly we move on.

"Vape," I agree, has more endurance. Even more, it rolls gently off the tongue. But word of the year? It’s a strange concept … especially in a world, a culture, where words themselves regularly vaporize.

Twitter: @davidulin

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