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And the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year is…


Now See What You Have Done?

By David Rosen, President, O’More College of Design

The dictionary defines “dictionary” as “a reference book that contains words listed in alphabetical order and that gives information about the words’ meanings, forms, pronunciations.” It is all about the words we use. Duh.

So when the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive collection of English words and their usage, first published by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s grandson in 1884 after 27 years of work, chose its word of the year for 2015, it was surprising to see it was Emoji

I am not sure how you punctuate the end of that sentence, because my reference books on writing lack a section on end punctuation after emoji. “Emoji” is the plural, and the dictionary also does not tell me how to refer to a single one, like “tears of joy.”

If you are a “design thinker,” by which I mean very observant, you will notice that the “thing” above is not a word, but a picture or rather a pictograph, a picture that stands for a word. Of course, letters are also just pictures that stand for words, but there is something startlingly different about the grinning tear-popper!

First, it is a picture. Second, it isn’t English.17474d3a52fd7efdada7b5896b5c5906

We live in a visual, international culture, and not for the first time in human history.

In the West, until the printing press, writing was the work of a very few, all men, mostly clergy. Reading was the province of those privileged few as well. When reading and writing became a general good that left the bounds of the 1% and travelled into the hands and minds of nearly everyone, the world was changed to be more inclusive. Information abounded. Change moved faster.

Up until that time, the West had its tales sung or told, like The Iliad or Beowulf. Or it had cathedrals that told the story of religion in its statues and windows and also depicted the humble pursuits of the community. Those documents were used to teach values and technologies and to memorialize traditions and history.

So it is odd to encounter a country-less picture as the English word of the year. It is odd in part because the selection takes us both backward and forward, and it is odd in part because today we probably write more than ever before—macro-form (books) to micro-form (tweets). Our fingers move across keyboards. Our conversations easily flow back and forth between talking and tapping.

No one can be sure exactly what the Oxford English Dictionary’s choice means. But it is clear that today and in the future we will find meaning through more and more of our senses. It reminds us that EQ, emotional intelligence, has become the equal of IQ and that what we see, hear, and feel rivals what we “know.” In other words, those ways of knowing rival words.

It is indeed a new year! Happy we hope. For clearly, we are not “doomed” because by the re-assertion of the visual, no more than we were doomed when the printing press, the telephone, the computer transformed communication and society. But we are on the cusp of a change and understanding that will help us move forward into the new.

of the year, oxford dictionary, word


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