Last weekend, the editors at the Australian Macquarie Dictionary announced their choice for 2017 Word of the Year. They chose milkshake duck, “a person who is initially viewed positively by the media but is then discovered to have something questionable about them which causes a sharp decline in their popularity.”
Remember how Ken Bone and his bright red sweater became a hero of sorts during the second presidential debate in 2016? And how, later, revelations about his Reddit comments about stolen nude photos and the death of Trayvon Martin took him from hero to zero overnight? He’s a milkshake duck.
More recently, do you remember the outpouring of goodwill toward young Keaton Jones after his tearful video about being bullied at school? And how his mother’s racist remarks and attempts to cash in on her son’s sudden celebrity soured all that goodwill? Total milkshake duck.
The genesis of milkshake duck can be traced back to a single tweet from @pixelatedboat during the summer of 2016:
The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist
— pixelated boat (@pixelatedboat) June 12, 2016
But Is It a Word?
Macquarie’s announcement sparked the kind of responses you’d expect: This is a ridiculous choice. I’ve never heard anyone use this phrase before. These lexicographers must have been on drugs. The Macquarie Dictionary has lost credibility. How could they not choose covfefe?
But perhaps the most common complaint — and the angriest — is that milkshake duck is two words, not one.
Setting aside the meta-irony of someone arguing with a lexicographer about what the word word means, Macquarie made an extra effort to explain what they mean in this case.
One of the more common ways we form new words in English is by putting together two (or more!) existing words together to form a new word with a new meaning. This is technically known as a lexical item or lexical unit. Essentially, a ‘word’ is the item that you look up in the dictionary to find the meaning.
A new word, or lexical item, is called for when the meaning of a particular pair of words cannot be derived from the meanings of its constituent parts. You need only open a dictionary to find common examples of lexical items like this — body check, ice cream, passion fruit, white trash.
Macquarie isn’t the only dictionary to face down the your-word-of-the-year-isn’t-a-word argument. Merriam-Webster’s 2015 Word of the Year was the suffix -ism.
Sure, lexical item isn’t what your average person means when they use the word word, but it’s still a valid use. And “Lexical Item of the Year” just doesn’t have the same ring as “Word of the Year.”