This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada
The voting is in, and the American Dialect Society’s Slang Word of the Year is… yeet.
Yeet is not so well known to oldsters, but it is in vogue among the youth. Its popularity demonstrates a central fact of how vocabulary spreads. It also leads us to Bugs Bunny, Clark Gable, and Judith Butler.
People use yeet because people they like have used it. New words tend to spread like viruses, and, like viruses, they typically have primary vectors (like Typhoid Mary) and index cases (the first known instance). Yeet was used as far back as 2008 to express excitement, but it gained real currency in 2014 as a result of a couple of Vines (short videos) showing young men doing a dance move dubbed the yeet. The second of the two got meme-ified – the young man in it was inserted into various other scenes – and the word spread. In general use, yeet is an expression of excitement (positive or negative), and from that it has been verbed, so that you can say you’ll yeet something across the room (hurl it with a cry) much as you might say you’ll yippie-ki-yay someone out the door.
Ideas spread much the same way, and that’s where Bugs Bunny comes in. Bugs Bunny famously eats carrots, and from that, millions of kids believe that rabbits like carrots. In fact, carrots aren’t rabbits’ favourite food and they’re not even very good for them. So why does Bugs eat carrots? The first time he was seen munching on a carrot, it was an overt reference to a scene with Clark Gable in the 1934 film It Happened One Night. Modern animated movies are always full of cultural references; so were the old short cartoons – we just don’t always get the references anymore, and the word or idea detaches from its origin and becomes a thing of its own.
That leads us to Judith Butler. She’s a theorist who talks about language and communication as performance, and one of her key concepts is citationality: Whenever we use language, we are drawing on and referring to – citing, in scholarly talk – previous uses and users of the words, phrases, and grammar. You’ll choose your words on the basis of who you think of as using them and what context they bring to mind. It’s why it was so much remarked on recently when Elizabeth Warren said “I’m gonna get me a beer” instead of just “I’m going to get a beer.” It’s also why some people hate some words so much: because of who they see as using them. A word typically gets a strong start from a particular source, and then it becomes associated with a set of people, even if the origin is forgotten.
Citationality and popular culture have given us quite a lot of words and turns of phrase. “You’re toast!” was first ad-libbed by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. “My bad!” started with basketball player Manute Bol, but really got spread by the movie Clueless. “Bucket list” took off as the title of a movie; “gaslighting” is an overt reference to the movie Gaslight; “blonde bombshell” blew up from the movie Bombshell starring Jean Harlow. And while similar exclamations can be heard in older songs, the term “yippie-ki-yay” yeeted out from Die Hard with Bruce Willis, and most people who say it (perhaps with one more word after it) probably still think of that – and its reference in turn to old cowboy movies…