Language

The Triumph of the Swears

The American Dialect Society named “enshittification” word of the year for 2023. But the sweariness didn’t stop there.

Nancy Friedman
6 min readJan 19, 2024

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What was your word of the year for 2023? For many of the dictionaries and publications around the globe that play the word-of-the-year (WotY) game, artificial intelligence was the dominant theme. Cambridge Dictionary picked the new AI sense of hallucinate as its word of the year, and so did Dictionary.com. The Economist chose ChatGPT, and so did Shanghai Daily and the (U.S.) Association of National Advertisers). The Moscow Times chose the Russian equivalent — ИИ — of AI.

Then there was the American Dialect Society, which was founded in 1889 and has been choosing “newly prominent” words of the year since 1990 — longer than any other institution. When 300 or so of its members — linguists, lexicographers, editors, writers, teachers, and independent scholars — convened in New York on January 5, a different mood prevailed. It was earthier, franker, and more analog. It was — may I speak frankly? — sweary. In fact, it was the sweariest word-of-the-year vote in ADS history.

Start at the top: The ADS’s overall WotY winner for 2023 was enshittification, which had been popularized by the journalist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow. Doctorow’s January 21, 2023, post on “Tiktok’s enshittification” was quickly picked up by Wired and then spread far and wide. Doctorow put it like this:

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, hold each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

The ADS also voted enshittification the digital word of the year. In the ADS press release announcing the WotY vote, Wall Street Journal language columnist and ADS New Words editor Ben Zimmer explained the choice this way: “Enshittification is a sadly apt term for how our online lives have become gradually degraded. ……

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Nancy Friedman

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist, ex-journalist. @fritinancy on Mastodon, Instagram, Bluesky, Threads, and elsewhere.