Do you remember this decade's words of the year?

Selfie, post-truth, youthquake.

What do these words have in common? They've all been crowned words of the year at some point in the decade that's about to end (yep, we've said it.)

Year after year, teams of lexicographers - dictionaries don't write themselves! - have waded through data, public opinion and even suggestions from social media to decide upon a word or phrase which sums up an entire year.

But how do you settle on one particular word over other contenders?

Both Oxford and Collins dictionaries acknowledged climate activism by campaigners such as Greta Thunberg (above) in their words of the year for 2019

Oxford Languages, who also produce the Oxford English Dictionary, is one of the organisations which announce a word of the year. Its selection is based on a number of factors, for example, an increased usage of a word or term.

In 2019, activists such as Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion group helped bring climate emergency to international attention. By September, climate emergency was in common usage 100 times more than a year previously. More specifically, emergency was being used in conjunction with climate - far more than it was with words such as health, hospital and family.

The software sift

Oxford’s language resources team, with the help of advanced software, sift through 150m words of English in current use each month. That software homes in on brand new words, and can also check to see if established words are being used in a different way.

It wasn't just hazardous substances which made toxic Oxford's word of 2018

One example of this would be 'toxic', their 2018 word of the year. Originally associated with hazardous materials, its usage did increase due to environmental incidents, but also in describing some personal relationships. The phrase 'toxic masculinity', which refers to depictions of male expression, also frequently appeared across the media during this time.

The team at Collins dictionary also select words of the year. This year, their pick was 'climate strike', in recognition of the young people who came together to join demonstrations against climate change. Their previous title holders include 'single-use' for 2018 - another environmental term, only this time relating to plastic. Also on the Collins list is 'fake news' in 2017, and 'photobomb' in 2014.

For 2019, Collins is also recognising the term 'non-binary', acknowledging the development in the ways people can refer to their gender.

Seeing the lighter side

But Oxford’s word of the year isn’t always linked to matters with a global impact. In 2005, it was ‘sudoku’, reflecting the popularity of the logical numbers game. 'Selfie', a photograph someone takes of themself (usually to share on social media), earned the title in 2013, but one of the most unusual holders so far was announced in 2015.

The Face With Tears of Joy emoji was named word of the year for 2015, despite it not containing any letters whatsoever. It was a gesture that emphasised the growth in use of the word 'emoji' over those 12 months. The tears of joy image was the most used around the world that year, and accounted for 20% of emoji use in the UK, compared to 4% in 2014. Oxford also noted that the likes of future US presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton had adopted them in social media posts for a younger audience, giving them more credibility.

Both dictionaries publish a shortlist of the words in contention for the crown. In 2015, one word that didn't quite dethrone the emoji at Oxford was Brexit. That would go on to be word of the year for Collins in 2016, following the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. On their shortlist for 2019 were 'deepfake' and 'rewilding', the practice of returning an area to its natural state to reintroduce animal species.

Not a letter in sight - but this was a word of the year in 2015

Dividing opinion

Oxford states that, for a word to be named word of the year, it is: “…judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”

Vicky Pollard, played by Matt Lucas in the TV sketch series Little Britain, was seen by many as a ‘chav’ character

The first time Oxford announced a word of the year, in 2004, there was some controversy surrounding that significance.

In the early 21st Century, ‘chav’ - Oxford's chosen word - became a term used to describe members of the working class. While characters such as Vicky Pollard in the sketch series Little Britain riffed off the term for comic effect, the Fabian Society asked the BBC to add it to its list of offensive terms. To them, chav represented “…middle class hatred of the white working class, pure and simple.”

2019Climate emergencyClimate strike
2017YouthquakeFake news
2015Face With Tears of Joy emojiBinge-watch
2012OmnishamblesNo word announced
2011Squeezed middleNo word announced
2010Big societyNo word announced

Not brought to book

Chav's rise and prevalence demonstrates which boxes the chosen word or phrase of the year has to tick - but also those it doesn’t. There is no need for the word to have been coined in the 12 months prior to it being announced - 'chav' was a popular phrase in Kent in the 20th Century.

And unlike Collins, who will include 'climate strike' in their dictionary, there is also no pressure on Oxford to include their winner - if it is an entirely new word - in any forthcoming editions. So, for example, while 'chav' is part of the Oxford English Dictionary website, at the time of writing 'climate emergency' isn’t - not yet, at least.

The deviously difficult dead word quiz
Five words that have changed their meaning
Why do we keep misspelling these words?