Because they said so, that's why

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

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."

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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.