Over the past year, headlines tied to gender, sexuality and race dominated the news. In particular, many of the year’s biggest stories focused on the way in which individuals or members of a group are perceived, understood, accepted, or shut out.
“Our data indicated a growing interest in words related to identity, as people encountered new terms throughout the year based on events tied to gender, sexuality, race, and other key issues,” said Liz McMillan, CEO of Dictionary.com. “Many words surrounding these topics trended or were newly added to our dictionary this year, making identity the clear front-runner as the Word of the Year.”
As new paradigms of gender and sexual identity enter the mainstream, so, too, do new linguistic constructs to discuss them. In addition to the Word of the Year selection, this announcement also marks the addition of several new definitions and entries for identity-focused words to Dictionary.com. These include a verb sense of identify that is used in the common construction identify as, and the term code-switching, or the modifying of one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms.
“The trends that we saw linguistically all point to a larger shift in the way society thinks about identity as being more fluid, which was evidenced by the increase in related events and news headlines,” continued McMillan.
The year 2015 saw a rise in stories tied to gender identity with Caitlyn Jenner gracing the cover of Vanity Fair,and Transparent, the Amazon Prime series about the patriarch of a family coming out as transgender, taking home the Golden Globe for Best Television series. The conversation was furthered by the Pentagon’s announcement in July of plans to allow transgender people to serve openly in the military, as well as all-women’s colleges Smith, Barnard and Wellesley changing their policies and officially opening admission to trans women this year.
Tied to changes in the way we think and speak about both gender and sexual identity, in June the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage a constitutional right, bringing to light subtle distinctions in the meaning we use for words that describe the institution, including partner, fiancé, husband, and wife. As the term marriageitself has grown to become more inclusive, Dictionary.com has closely tracked these shifts and its associated definition. Popular culture also piqued interest in a number of terms related to sexual identity this year, with the release of the highly anticipated Fifty Shades of Grey movie in late winter, and Miley Cyrus and Lily-Rose Depp both publicly announcing that they identify as pansexual, or sexually fluid.
Racial identity was also a key theme in the headlines this year. In June, Rachel Dolezal, an NAACP chapter president, was outed as a white woman presenting herself as black, prompting discussion and debate over her use of the term transracial. Also that month, the Unicode Consortium expanded the previously limited range of skin tones and hair colors available on the emoji keyboard.
In 2015, these events, and others like them, drove a surge in lookups on Dictionary.com for identity-related words including transgender, cisgender, omnisexual, and asexual. In addition, new terms were added throughout the year to reflect the changing landscape and language around identity, including microaggression, gender-fluid,Mx., and sapiosexual. Now, the company updated and added the latest round of identity-related definitions to the site, including:
identify: to associate oneself in feeling, interest, action, etc., with a specified group or belief system (usually followed by as or with).
code-switching: the modifying of one’s behavior, appearance, etc., to adapt to different sociocultural norms.
gender expression: the external expression of gender roles, as through socially defined behaviors and ways of dressing.
Originally published in The Seattle Lesbian