A stranger walks into a crowded bar, produces a plastic and metal reed that looks something like a fountain pen, and twists the cap. Smoke ensues. No, with all respect to The Goldfinch, he has not set off a bomb, though ardent antismokers might take it as such. Instead, our mysterious stranger is “vaping,” as in “I vape, you vape, he/she/it vapes,” taking nicotine into the body in the form of a chemtrail instead of the traditional aftereffect of fire.
The technology behind the “e-cigarette,” as the vaping vehicle is called, is relatively new, having appeared in China just a dozen years ago. The word is newer still, at least in its present application and widespread usage. That it is now a term that turns up on people’s lips and in the spoken and written media makes it of interest to lexicographers and etymologists, to people that track change and innovation in language. That interest, in turn, is what’s landed “vape” the distinction of being the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2014, a distinction bestowed just yesterday in advance of the holiday (and, traditionally, dictionary-buying) season.
Many words evolve to fill holes in the lexicon, usually because the language hasn’t caught up to technology: thus last year’s WOTY, “selfie,” describing that now-ubiquitous phenomenon of snapping a self-portrait with a cell phone. It’s not much of a word, but no matter. Many of the last decade’s WOTY winners have similar high-tech origins, including “unfriend” and “podcast.” Others, a purist might huff, are signs of our civilization’s decline, including the 2010 entry, “refudiate,” a portmanteau that, it has to be said, does fill a need, even if its coiner likely didn’t realize that she was making a contribution to the language.
“Selfie” comes from the periphery, namely Australia, where adding an –ie to words (“barbie” for barbecue, for instance) is a national pastime. “Vape” comes from a kind of periphery, too, the demimonde where people still smoke—and, notes Katherine Martin, head of Oxford University Press’ U.S. dictionaries division, it marks a kind of social divide, since people who dislike smoking use the old term instead of vaping, whereas the e-cigarette industry has been pushing for the new word precisely to disguise the connection between vapor and smoke. (That’s a matter of semantics rather than pure description, falling outside the bailiwick of most dictionaries.) Just as interestingly from a linguist’s point of view, the word “vape” is an odd instance of one that predates the thing it describes; in this case, Martin points out, the first instance of the word turns up in a 1983 magazine article describing the world of the future, one in which people smoke—beg pardon, vape—electronic cigarettes.
Including “vape,” this year’s candidates included numerous, more or less specialized terms—among them, Martin notes with evident delight, one that’s perhaps related, since “some of the spikes that we saw in ‘vape’ last year were connected to its use not with tobacco but with medical marijuana.” Voilà: We now have “budtender,” someone whose job it is to mix up a fine batch of cool herb. “I didn’t believe at first that it was a real word,” she says, “but it is—you can find it in job listings, there are places that offer certificates in it. Often those cute ‘blendie’ words don’t catch on, but this one looks like it’ll stick around.”
Budtending. Selfie-ing. Vaping. We’ll see if next year’s WOTY refudiates the suspicion that our culture is a soufflé in an advanced stage of collapse, or if the fuddy-duddies should just chillax. Stay tuned.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.