From Flappers to Emojis: One Hundred Years of Words

According to the writers of the Oxford Words blog, in 1915, the Oxford English Dictionary could easily have chosen “flapper” for the word of the year (if choosing a word of the year was a thing that happened a hundred years ago). This year, I was fascinated by the non-word pick—more about that shortly—but as I was doing a little research, I happened upon the Oxford Words blog post about “flapper,” and since there are so many ways that the flapper ethos is a style inspiration for me, I had to read more.


Postcard of a flapper that I’ve had for the past twenty-five or so years. On the back, it says “A Modern Society Beauty in her Boudoir.”

The writers of that post chose flapper because “[t]hese meanings were coming together in 1915 as a name for a modern, smart, fashionable young woman, so avant in the avant garde that she flirted with danger” and “[t]he women’s vote, prohibition, speakeasies, and the Roaring Twenties made the flapper possible.” I came early to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Basil and Josephine Stories have a particular and special place in my heart (Josephine Perry will always be the ideal of nineteen-year-old me). And even though the term “flapper” was just coming into general use one hundred years ago, the idea of a flapper still seems to have maintained that sense of avant garde edginess.

But moving forward into our current century, things that are new seem to not always hold onto that shiny luster. That might, in part, have to do with how quickly things are changing regarding technology and how we communicate. In fact, one of my favorite things to talk (and think) about is how technology and communication are intertwined, and that is what brings me to the 2015 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, which isn’t a word at all. How exciting!

I don’t consider myself fluent in emoji use. Nonetheless, I am absolutely fascinated at this year’s pick! It’s kind of old news already (since the announcement was made on November 16) that the word of the year isn’t a word at all, but is, instead, the emoji commonly known as “Face with Tears of Joy.” 

What I find so interesting is what the choice says about how we are communicating and the fact that some of the “words” we use aren’t even alphabetic—and indeed, the Oxford Words blog calls it a “pictograph.” The same post also has a link to a quiz: “How well do you know your emojis?” Let’s take the quiz and find out!

Well, I just gave it a try, and I got three out of twenty-one right. Not very impressive. It seems that I should pay more attention to the communication happening all around me. The Oxford Words blog tells us that the reason for choosing “Face with Tears of Joy”  was because it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015.” And if you’d like to be more emoji literate yourself, here is a Slate quiz from last year with first lines of famous novels as emojis (I don’t think I did so well with that one either).

But regardless of my fluency, I will never tire of watching language change. I think that choosing a word of the year is important, and I’m glad that it’s not only Oxford Dictionaries that does it, but Merriam-Webster,, and others, as well. And while doing this only gives a tiny glimpse of how we are communicating, that glimpse tells us something important: that we are always changing.


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