What the word of the year says about PR and marketing

The top word, crowned by Oxford University Press, has been around for 25 years—something that’s irked a few word nerds—and it holds an important lesson.

As fashion and music style goes, so, too, go words.

The Oxford University Press on Monday released its word of the year, and it’s … drumroll, please … GIF—an acronym invented in 1987.

After 25 years of languishing among the tech set, GIF, which refers to an image file format, emerged this year as a popular way to document anything from the mundane to the momentous.

GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun,” Katherine Connor Martin, a lexicographer in Oxford University Press’s New York office, said in a blog post. “The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.”

For people working in corporate communications, it’s yet another sign that 2012 is the year of the image—if creating and/or sharing pictures and graphics online isn’t part of your strategy this year, it had better be next year.

Tumblr accounts and blogs shot to prominence on the back of these images, which is an image or videos sequence that repeats. Here’s an example:

Here are a couple of practical things you should know about the word GIF:

• It’s an acronym meaning “graphic interchange format” that was coined in 1987, according to Connor Martin.

• People now use it as a verb, as in, to GIF, or to create a GIF.

• You can pronounce it with a soft g (like “giant”) or a hard g (like graphic), said Connor Martin. But know that the programmers, who invented the file format, prefer the soft g—for their favorite peanut butter brand, Jiff.

• For now, upper case GIF, advised Connor Martin. When converting to verb format—GIFing and GIFed—lowercase the endings. One caveat, however: Connor Martin said that because a single spelling hasn’t been established, “Oxford’s lexicography team will be watching to see which version ultimately wins out.”

A number of words that didn’t win out against GIF did make this year’s list of runners-up on the Oxford list. Among them:

• Superstorm – a reference to the hurricane turned devastating weather phenomenon that pummeled the East Coast.

• YOLO – an acronym for “you only live once.”

• Super PAC – a political action committee (PAC) on steroids, basically.

As this is word of the year season, a number of other dictionaries will soon release their picks for 2012. It’s safe to say at least one of these picks—superstorm—will be on their lists.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Oxford University Press chose “omnishambles” as word of the year. It refers to a “situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations”—kind of like a PR blunder.

Last year, Oxford University Press chose the same word for both the U.S. and U.K.: “squeezed middle.” A number of Americans were perplexed by the pick, chiefly because they had never heard it.

This year, however, it’s a different story. The Atlantic Wire‘s resident word nerd Jen Doll and GIF expert Elspeth Reeve both preferred the British word.

GIF is “disappointing,” writes Doll. “As word of the year it seems, dare we say, a little old-fashioned.”

Others shared her concern; however, it’s important to note—as expert word nerd Ben Zimmer did—that Oxford University Press designated GIF as word of the year not as a noun, but as a verb, which is a relatively new development.

And that means companies had better start GIFing.

(Image via, via & via)


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