Verbal Energy

Because they said so, that's why (+video)

An old word used in a new way gets the nod as the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2013.

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From presidents to royals to the average Joe - everyone, it seems, snapped a selfie in 2013. Memorable ones include politicians taking photos of themselves at Nelson Mandela's memorial, and an astronaut's self-portrait in space.

The Word of the Year season seems to begin earlier and run later every year, not unlike the Christmas shopping season: candy canes on the way home from your Labor Day barbecue, anyone?

And with so many organizations choosing a Word of the Year, or WOTY, one triangulates among them, as movie buffs pay attention to the Golden Globes to determine which films will clean up at the Oscars.

The Oxford Dictionaries came out Nov. 19 with selfie as their word for 2013. Oxford has generally picked different words for different sides of the Atlantic, reinforcing the idea of "two peoples separated by a common language."

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

But this year, there was just one WOTY, and the choice was "unanimous, with very little argument," an Oxford press release said. (For those who spent last year in a cave: A selfie is an informal self-portrait, often with others, generally taken with a smart phone.)

But the American Dialect Society's WOTY is, in the eyes of many linguists, the one that really counts. It is, to quote that source of wisdom, Wikipedia, "the oldest of these" – going all the way back to the early 1990s. It's announced after the calendar year ends, "determined by a vote of independent linguists, and not tied to commercial interests." And for 2013, the ADS Word of the Year is (drumroll!) ... because.

Come again? Yes, because – as a preposition, although that's not exactly how the ADS explains it.

"The selection recognized that because is now being used in new ways to introduce a noun, adjective, or other part of speech," the ADS said.

Here's Ben Zimmer, who chairs the New Words Committee of the ADS: "This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use. No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like 'because science' or 'because reasons.' You might not go to a party 'because tired.' As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year 'because useful!' "

Because has been around since 1300, originally "bi-cause," meaning "by cause," after the French par cause, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Today it's used as a subordinating conjunction, used to introduce adverbial clauses – to answer "why" questions. "Because he knew he had a lot to do, he went to work early." Because of is the corresponding preposition: "Because of his workload, he went to work early."

A look at the ADS list since the early 1990s suggests the group has nailed the zeitgeist pretty regularly over the years. I was pleased to note web as the word for 1995, and bailout for 2008, for instance.

But words of the year – whether from Oxford, ADS, or Merriam-Webster, which opted for science for 2013 – are generally nouns, with a sprinkling of verbs. (Remember unfriend?)

Nouns and verbs, along with adjectives and adverbs, are what linguists call "content words." Pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and a handful of other types of words are "function words," helpful in holding sentences together but unlikely to draw attention unless something is missing. New content words get added to the language all the time. They fill pages and pages of the dictionaries.

Function words are far fewer in number, though they are in constant use. That's what makes because, as a preposition, so striking.

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