Why 'Dumpster Fire' Was 2016 Word of the Year

Dumpster Fire
(Image credit: Baloncici | Shutterstock.com)

Last year was the hottest year on record, but it wasn't just high temperatures that people will remember — Americans had to handle a fiery, contentious election, and people around the world experienced violent, political strife. It seems fitting, then, that "dumpster fire" has been selected as the word of the year for 2016.

In a vote held in Austin, Texas, on Jan. 6, the American Dialect Society chose "dumpster fire" — defined as "an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation" — as the word (or, rather, words) of the year.

"As 2016 unfolded, many people latched on to 'dumpster fire' as a colorful, evocative expression to verbalize their feelings that the year was shaping up to be a catastrophic one," Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, said in a statement. "In pessimistic times, 'dumpster fire' served as a darkly humorous summation of how many [people] viewed the year's events." [The 6 Strangest Presidential Elections in US History]

The phrase "dumpster fire" wasn't invented just last year, and although it's actually two words, the American Dialect Society said "Word of the Year" can be interpreted in its broader sense, as a "vocabulary item" — in other words, not just words but phrases.

The society also added that the chosen words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they should represent things that were newly prominent or notable in the past year.

"Very few [words of the year] are brand-new," said Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, who founded the society's Word of the Year vote in 1990.

"It's not a scientific process," Metcalf told Live Science, noting the unpredictability of the hand vote, which can be swayed by a particularly impassioned nomination speech.

Voters picked "dumpster fire" from a field of other category winners, including "normalize," "post-truth," "#noDAPL" (a hashtag used by protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline) and the fire emoji. The eventual word of the year won in a runoff vote against "woke," which means "socially aware or enlightened."

This selection is the 27th annual word of the year, joining a list of previous words of the year that reflect changing sociopolitical environments. The 2015 winner was the singular "they" (in place of "he" or "she"), and in 2014, "#blacklivesmatter" took the title.

The American Name Society also announced its selection of "Aleppo," the city in Syria, as 2016's name of the year.

Original article on Live Science.

Staff Writer
Greg Uyeno is a science journalist. He has studied cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley and journalism at New York University. He’s always interested in the language of science and the science of language.