Photo: Jon Williams, via Flickr
Last night, Oxford Dictionaries announced its Word of the Year—vape—and it was hard not to feel, at first, a twinge of disappointment. After all, 2013’s Word of the Year was selfie, which was so ubiquitous, so contentious, so undeniably germane to our times, that think pieces are still being written about it a year later. Selfie was a gift from the lexical gods, a soft disyllable that contained within it the whole winding story of our evolving relationship with technology. Choosing it was almost an act of synecdoche: it stood for a massive and increasingly vexed conversation about our lives online.
But our neology isn’t always so supple; Oxford Dictionaries is on the lookout for words that “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year,” and not every year delivers a pluperfect sign of the times. You play the hand you’re dealt. And 2014 has dealt us a lot of duds—slacktivism, budtender, bae, and normcore were on the shortlist this year, all clever and evocative as far as they go, but none of them with that era-encapsulating magic.
And none of them with the guarantee of longevity. I asked Allison Wright, an editor at Oxford University Press, what she and her colleagues look for in the Word of the Year, and she emphasized the importance of finding a word that isn’t “a flash in the pan.” Hence, she said, the ultimate appeal of vape—(v.) inhale and exhale the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device; (n.) an electronic cigarette or similar device; an act of inhaling and exhaling the vapor produced by an electronic cigarette or similar device—which promises to be around for a little while.
“It’s generating a new and more productive vocabulary,” Allison told me. I hadn’t been sold on vape until I considered the ramifications of this vocabulary, around which an entire subculture has risen. Oxford’s announcement calls out vape pen, vaporium, and most notably the retronym tobacco cigarette, which signals vape’s influence: what would’ve been laughably redundant in the twentieth century is now a necessary distinction.
I remember the first time I encountered an e-cigarette, probably five or six years ago, in my early twenties—not a time when you want to sense that the world’s moving too fast for you. That’s how I felt, though: Here was this sleek black cylinder with a blue light that throbbed when I inhaled from it. You could charge it with your computer. You could buy it from a kiosk in the mall, and yet I had no idea how it worked. Here was a harbinger of my obsolescence: I could see how in a few decades’ time the latest technology would overshadow my abilities to grasp it. I would grow old in the eclipse, ceasing to live in the present. Also, the spearmint flavor was really good.
And the need for the word—what Oxford refers to as “a gap in the lexicon”—was certainly there. I can recall a brief period in which people spoke of e-cigging and e-smokers, but these words always came tissue-wrapped in scare quotes, a shroud of irony marking their uncertainty. What we were reaching for, and soon found, was vape, a handsome abbreviation of vaporize. As a derivative of vapor, it’s a spin-off of a kind of heritage brand. For a word that just means “a substance diffused in air,” vapor has taken on a rich figurative life over the years—you can get the vapors, you can be vapid, and (best but most rare of all) you can vapor on and on—“to indulge in bragging, blustering, or idle talk,” as Merriam-Webster defines vapor the verb, with a perfect example: “a faded Southern belle tiresomely vaporing about all the handsome beaux she had in her long-ago youth.” So vape partakes of a long history of things turning mysteriously or irksomely into air; it won’t be long until someone puts it to apt figurative use.
Selfie asked us to accept what was, for some, a hard truth: that we live in an age when we really like to photograph ourselves, mainly because we’re better equipped than ever to do so. Vape is similarly pitched between hedonism and futurism. It celebrates something humans have always excelled at, which is finding new and novel ways to get buzzed. If neither of these words makes a rah-rah case for our enlightenment, so what? Where conservative critics see a culture dedicated to narcissism and addicted to nicotine, I see a bunch of people trying to have a good time—and a pair of words taking a small stand against propriety.
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