Over the past academic year, there has been an explosion of new or renewed campus activities, pop culture phenomena, tech trends, generational shifts, and social movements started by or significantly impacting students. Most can be summed up in a single word.
I've selected 15 as finalists for what I am calling the “2011-2012 College Word of the Year Contest.” Okay, a few are actually acronyms or short phrases. But altogether the terms — whether short-lived or seemingly permanent — offer a unique glimpse at what students participated in, talked about, fretted over, and fought for this past fall and spring.
As Time Magazine’s Touré confirms, “The words we coalesce around as a society say so much about who we are. The language is a mirror that reflects our collective soul."
Let's take a quick look in the collegiate rearview mirror. In alphabetical order, here are my College Word of the Year finalists.
1) Boomerangers: Right after commencement, a growing number of college graduates are heading home, diploma in hand and futures on hold. They are the boomerangers, young 20-somethings who are spending their immediate college afterlife in hometown purgatory. A majority move back into their childhood bedroom due to poor employment or graduate school prospects or to save money so they can soon travel internationally, engage in volunteer work or launch their own business.
“Graduation means something completely different than it used to 30 years ago,” student columnist Madeline Hennings wrote in January for the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech. “At my age, my parents were already engaged, planning their wedding, had jobs, and thinking about starting a family. Today, the economy is still recovering, and more students are moving back in with mom and dad.”
2) Drunkorexia: This five-syllable word has become the most publicized new disorder impacting college students. Many students, researchers and health professionals consider it a dangerous phenomenon. Critics, meanwhile, dismiss it as a media-driven faux-trend. And others contend it is nothing more than a fresh label stamped onto an activity that students have been carrying out for years.
Drunkorexia first surged into the spotlight this past fall when an eye-opening study by University of Missouri researchers revealed “one in six students said they restricted food in order to consume alcohol within the last year.”
3) FADerall: Studying for finals. Paying attention in class. Simply wanting to feel wired. The explosion of illegal Adderall use by students has many root causes — and a number of unintended side effects. The pill’s medical purpose is to help individuals with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and narcolepsy. Yet, it’s being increasingly co-opted by college students looking for an academic edge or a head-trip. Apparently, full-time students are twice as likely to illegally use Adderall as individuals their age who are not in school or only enrolled part-time.
The results of this so-called FADerall: a running debate about whether the “academic steroid” is equivalent to actual cheating; student Adderall dealers who make oodles of cash selling the pills, especially around midterms and finals; student Adderall addicts whose sleep schedules, brains, and bodily functions are thrown off; and students with verifiable ADHD who face increased peer pressure to pass along pills to friends and increased scrutiny from medical professionals wary of promoting an academic doping revolution.
4) FOMO: Students are increasingly obsessed with being connected — to their high-tech devices, social media chatter and their friends during a night, weekend or roadtrip in which something worthy of a Facebook status update or viral YouTube video might occur. (For an example of the latter, check out this young woman "tree dancing“ during a recent music festival.)
5) Gender-Neutral: At a rising number of colleges and universities — in middle America and along the coasts — students are protesting, passing resolutions and publishing commentaries in support of a single hyphenated buzzword: gender-neutral.
The push for gender-neutral campus housing and restroom options appears to be part of a larger student-led fight on some campuses for greater “transgender inclusiveness,” something the Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma is hailing as the heart of “this generation’s civil rights movement.”
The Daily Texan at the University of Texas reported in late February that more than 100 schools currently offer gender-neutral housing programs nationwide, a huge leap in the last six years. Student newspapers are also helping spread awareness about the need for “safe restrooms,” in part by publishing reports and op-eds about “the population on campus currently uncomfortable with gendered bathrooms.” Last November, Samuel Levine, a University of Chicago rising junior, contended that “some students say an environment without gender labels has become an integral part of their college experience... Gender-neutral colleges can be a safe and comfortable place for students who are transgender or who don’t identify with their biological sex.”
6) Helicopter Parents: Certain moms and dads just don’t know when to quit. Even with their kids grown up and enrolled at a school far away, they continue to restrict, coddle and fuss over their academic, professional and social lives with an eye-opening vigor. So-called helicopter parents have hovered over higher education for years, but recently rose again to A-list prominence among the student and professional media and scholarly community for their continued extraordinary interference in their children's lives.
7) Katniss: The Capitol. District 12. “Winning means fame and fortune. Losing means certain death.” Tributes. Peeta. Panem. “May the Odds Ever Be in Your Favor.” With “The Hunger Games” invading multiplexes this spring, many of the locations, characters, quotes and quirks unique to the world author Suzanne Collins created have suddenly loomed large within pop culture. The biggest, by far: Katniss.
The girl on fire, the trilogy’s main character, has spawned a rabid fan-base and tons of offshoots and imitators desperate to embody her unique brand of scrappiness, understated fashion sense, archery and survival skills, and even one of her hairstyles (the Katniss braid). Responding to “Twilight,” some students hail Katniss as the anti-Bella. She is also held up as a symbolic fighter for social justice issues and environmental rights. According to the Flat Hat at the College of William and Mary, “While ‘The Hunger Games’ shows the devastating effects of climate change, Katniss serves as a relatable heroine who empowers young readers to enact change before it’s too late.”
8) Kony: It is a last name, a symbol of political activism and a cultural flashpoint. It is also the title of what may be the longest YouTube video students have ever watched and the most resonant recent movement at the student level beyond those involving tuition hikes. “Kony 2012,” an activist documentary of sorts “featuring shocking images of kidnapped child soldiers” in Uganda, went mega-viral almost immediately after its early March premiere.
“No matter the effect ‘Kony 2012′ has had on students, whether arousing outrage, sympathy or anger, it has generated a sense of political activism for human rights issues,” an editorial in the Emory Wheel at Emory University stated. “We are glad that individual students have actively been pursuing the issue, which should be important to us as members of a university community that cares deeply about global and human rights issues.”
9) Meme: This spring, college memes suddenly invaded the Facebook streams of students at schools throughout the U.S., Canada and parts of Europe. The memes craze is unique for the speed and ferocity with which students latched on and expanded upon it, independent of any truly influential organized campaign. A rash of news reports described the phenomenon as an “overnight sensation,” an “outbreak among college students,” “wildly popular,” “all the rage,” “the meme bandwagon,” “meme mania,” “the meme wars,” “meme madness,” “the meme deluge,” “the meme epidemic” and “the unstoppable meme train.”
As the Hook Up, an online student outlet at the University of Iowa, shared, “It’s not often that such a phenomenon takes off running with such fury and so little impetus... Students are now meme-ing like they’ve never memed before.” Or as a Syracuse University sophomore tweeted simply, “The ‘College Meme Page’ frenzy is unlike anything I can remember on Facebook. Seems every school is discovering it at once.”
10) Pinning: Among students and many others, the social media platform of the moment is Pinterest. As one of my students at the University of Tampa explained to me months back when the site was still invite-only, “I am always looking for the latest Web site to entertain myself. Yes, I have a Facebook account, along with a Twitter feed, a Tumblr blog, a Flickr page . . . you name it. My latest obsession is a little Web site called Pinterest.”
11) Post-Potter Depression: The final installment of the massive Harry Potter film series premiered last July, marking the end of a roughly 15-year run of regular HP book and movie rollouts. For current students, passionate occupants of the Harry Potter generation, the mourning is palpable and more sinister than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: post-Potter depression. Among the many phenomena spun-off from the novels and films — a theme park, the Pottermore Web site, HP fan fiction and conventions, college Quidditch teams, and Daniel Radcliffe’s acting career — perhaps none is quirkier and currently more en vogue than post-Potter depression.
12) [Stuff] Sorority Girls Say: This phenomenon went viral near the start of spring semester. It encompasses countless videos wittily sharing and spoofing the most common sayings and mannerisms of almost every group of people — from girls, hipsters, and vegans to monks, black guys, and cats. The version that has resonated most with students: “[Stuff] Sorority Girls Say.”
The four-minute amateurish video with light cursing features a male dressed in drag, spouting dozens of funny and faux scatterbrained statements that a stereotypical sorority sister might utter. A small sampling: “We can’t go to the football game yet, it just started like an hour ago... My iPhone’s broken. Oh wait. Never mind... Do you think smoking will make me skinny?...Oh my God, where did you get those rain boots? I want it to rain, so I can wear my rain boots... Is it still a walk of shame if you look damn good?”
It currently sports more than 2.6 million views on YouTube and has spawned scores of campus-specific spinoffs created by students at schools nationwide, including American, Catholic University, Georgetown, George Mason, George Washington, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, William and Mary, and, sporting the most hits, Howard.
13) Shmacked: On Urban Dictionary, one entry for the word shmacked states that it involves becoming “intoxicated to the point of not even being able to stand up, know what’s going on or correctly pronounce any word.” This spring, the term entered the collegiate lexicon under a second definition: a controversial film company. Started over winter break by Arya Toufanian, a George Washington University student, and Jeffrie Ray, a student at New York’s School of the Visual Arts, “I’m Shmacked” aims to record and share footage of large-scale parties and social events on campuses across the country.
As the Breeze at James Madison University noted about a late January weekend at the school, “Partygoers could have been many things this weekend: wasted, bombed, twisted, hammered or just plain drunk. But everyone was about to be ‘shmacked.’” In this respect, “I’m Shmacked” has spurred controversy among some students, college administrators, and law enforcement officials for seemingly serving to glamorize or even inspire crazier or illegal activities like underage drinking, drug use, public alcohol consumption, explicit sexual acts, and vandalism. Yet, Toufanian claims the company’s goal is simply to capture and present “what campus life is really like." In his words, “We’re not advocating for these things, but documenting them as they are.” He hopes to parlay the videos into a feature film, a full-blown Web site and a book.
14) Thrifting: Thrifting is a commercial and creative endeavor that has received a bevy of attention this past academic year. Students are becoming more vocal about the benefits of shopping for fashion, accessories and dorm décor at thrift and consignment shops. They are also increasingly trading apparel with friends (also known as clothing swaps). And they are hosting do-it-yourself fashion shows and themed parties in which clothes must be handmade — comprised of older, organic or recyclable items.
15) YOLO: Carpe Diem is dead. Gather ye rosebuds has withered. Live life to the fullest is so last year. The latest dream-big-be-bold phrase is actually an acronym, one that has been fervently adopted and scorned in equal measure by students (and the general public): YOLO or You Only Live Once. It is a text-and-tweet-friendly reminder about the benefits of seeking sheer enjoyment, adventure and risk during our brief time on Earth.
Many students have publicly demeaned it as nothing more than a silly phrase their peers are whispering and hashtagging when engaged in irresponsible behavior. Others though see its potential. As Ashley Dye wrote for the Ball State Daily News at Ball State University, “I see it as a fun little fad. It reminds me of ‘Hakuna Matata,’ but without a warthog and a meerkat singing about it... Too many people (myself included) can work themselves to death and forget about an important part of a healthy life — mental health. Remember ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’? If shouting ‘#YOLO’ is what keeps you from pulling a ‘The Shining,’ then do it."
What is your pick for College Word of the Year? What words have I left out? And what words would you most like to see eliminated from students’ vocabularies by next fall?
A little more about the author: Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters and the student life column Campus Beat for USA Today College. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is due out in early 2013 by Routledge.