SHERATON TIMES SQUARE HOTEL, NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK—JAN. 4—In its 29th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted for tender-age shelter (also tender-age facility or tender-age camp) as the Word of the Year for 2018. The term, which has been used in a euphemistic fashion for the government-run detention centers that have housed the children of asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexico border, was selected as best representing the public discourse and preoccupations of the past year.
Presiding at the Jan. 4 voting session was Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
The term tender-age shelter/facility/camp first emerged in June 2018 when it was reported that infants and young children were being held in special detention centers after being separated from their families who crossed over the southern border, some illegally.
“The use of highly euphemistic language to paper over the human effects of family separation was an indication of how words in 2018 could be weaponized for political necessity,” Zimmer said. “But the bureaucratic phrasing ended up backfiring, as reports of the term served to galvanize opposition to the administration’s border policy.”
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 130-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 “Jamal Kashoggi” as Name of the Year for 2018 in its fourteenth annual name-of-the-year contest.