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The American Dialect Society's Word of the Year is 'They'

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Every January at the annual convention of the American Dialect Society, a high-spirited crowd of linguists pack themselves into a conference room to passionately yet jovially argue for their favorites in the Word of the Year vote. Winners are chosen in various categories and the vote is held by a good, old-fashioned show of hands. Here are some of the words from last night's event.

THEY

They won for overall Word of the Year, not because it's a new word, but because it finally seems to be coming into its own as an accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun. This year the style guide of The Washington Post accepted singular they, and as time goes on more editing guidelines are bound to make the same change. While they has long been used as a pronoun for a person whose gender is unknown, it was chosen as Word of the Year particularly for its role as a pronoun for someone who wishes to avoid a binary gender distinction. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, explained its appeal this way: “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.” It also won the category Most Useful.

MANBUN (MOST UNNECESSARY)

Of all the candidates for the Most Unnecessary Word—a field that included dadbod, or nah, trigger warning, and thanks Obamamanbun was deemed the least necessary because it may as well just be called a bun.

NETFLIX AND CHILL (MOST EUPHEMISTIC)

Defined as a "sexual come-on masked as a suggestion to watch Netflix and relax," one supporter cited the way it's given rise to a while new vocabulary of relationship progression. She had been informed by some of her students that "Netflix and chill" may be followed by "Hulu and commit."

TO GHOST (MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED)

The verb to ghost, meaning "abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially online" was deemed more likely to succeed than its competitors CRISPR ("gene-editing technology allowing biologists to alter and control DNA sequences"), mom ("admiring term of address for a woman seen as a mother figure"), and the already-tired on fleek ("put together, impeccable, well-arrayed").

SITBIT (LEAST LIKELY TO SUCCEED)

If we've got Fitbit, why not sitbit, a device that rewards you for sitting around? This wordplay on the fitness tracking device craze was deemed not likely to stick around.

AMMOSEXUAL (MOST CREATIVE)

This coinage for "someone who loves firearms in a fetishistic manner" won out over the verb to adult, meaning behave like a grown up, as in "I just made a dentist appointment, put a roast in the oven, and finished my taxes. I am adulting so hard right now!"

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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