JW MARRIOTT, AUSTIN, TX—JAN. 6—In its 27th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted for dumpster fire as the Word of the Year for 2016. Defined as “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation,” the term dumpster fire was selected as best representing the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year.
Presiding at the Jan. 6 voting session were ADS Executive Secretary Allan Metcalf of MacMurray College and Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Zimmer is also the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
As a metaphor for a situation that is out of control or poorly handled, dumpster fire came into prominence in 2016, very frequently in the context of the U.S. presidential campaign. It evokes an image of an uncontrolled blaze in a dumpster, a large trash receptacle that originated as a proprietary name. Dumpster was in commercial use beginning in the 1930s before becoming genericized.
The expression came to be used metaphorically, a rough equivalent of train wreck, chiefly on sports talk radio, before being circulated in wider use as a highly negative term for such events as the 2016 campaign season. On Twitter and other social media, the “trashcan” and “fire” emoji were combined to provide a visual representation: 🗑🔥.
“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,” Zimmer said. “In pessimistic times, dumpster fire served as a darkly humorous summation of how many viewed the year’s events.”
Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as “vocabulary item”—not just words but phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.
The vote is the longest-running such vote anywhere, the only one not tied to commercial interests, and the word-of-the-year event up to which all others lead. It is fully informed by the members’ expertise in the study of words, but it is far from a solemn occasion.
Members in the 128-year-old organization include linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students, and independent scholars. In conducting the vote, they act in fun and do not pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language. Instead, they are highlighting that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining.
In a companion vote, sibling organization the American Name Society voted “Aleppo” as Name of the Year for 2016 in its twelfth annual name-of-the-year contest.