2011 US-to-UK Word of the Year: FTW

Many thanks to the intrepid readers who have nominated words and phrases for SbaCL Words of the Year this year. Yesterday, kettling was announced as the BrE-to-AmE WotY. Tonight's post does the other (AmE-to-BrE) half of the job.  Unusually, both Words of the Year come from readers' nominations. Am I getting less bossy and opinionated and more generous in my old age? We can only hope so.

And so the AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year is (you're going to hate this):


Yes, you are going to hate it. And you will hate it for one or more of the following reactions:
  1. "WTF does it mean?"
  2. "That's internet-speak, which is border-crossing by nature. Why should we think of this as inherently AmE?"
  3. "That's not a word! It's an alphabetism [or initialism]! At best, it's a phrase!"
  4. "My nomination was so much better."

Let's take these objections one by one: 

First, get your mind out of the gutter. The F stands for for.  As in For The Win. If I read it aloud, I read it as that phrase, not as the letters. (I'd be interested to hear if anyone does just pronounce the letters for this meaning.)  It's usually used as a post-nominal (after a noun) modifier in order to indicate enthusiastic approval of something--especially something that has 'come through' and 'won' for you.  Here are some recent tweets that have used it (and while I typed the last sentence, 59 more twitterers used it):

god, love sophia grace and rosie, essex girls ftw!

Big bang theory FTW!

What I need is a 'Labour Insider' (unhappy SpAd will do) who has same axe to grind & can repeat himself every week. Journalism job FTW!

This made me laugh. tithenai.tumblr.com/post/321518623… Catholics FTW
[Editor's note: it made me laugh too. Go ahead, (BrE) have/(AmE) take a look!)

The first two of these seem to be by young people watching television. The third writes for The Guardian. The last is a Member of Parliament. So, you might not know FTW...but a lot of people do.

Now, its Americanness:  Once upon a time there was a television (AmE) game show/(BrE) quiz show called Hollywood Squares. In it, nine entertainers sit in a giant (AmE) tic-tac-toe/(BrE) noughts-and-crosses array, and two contestants try to get Xs and Os into the boxes. During X's turn, for example, Contestant X chooses which square to attempt. The host, Peter Marshall (who hosted it 1966–1981) then asks the (orig./chiefly AmE) celeb a question, and the celeb says funny things and eventually gives an answer. The contestant then has to decide whether to accept the answer or not. If contestant X makes the right choice, then "X takes the square", as Marshall would say.  When a contestant chose the square that could give them their three Xs or Os in a row, Marshall the contestant would name the celebrity and say "[insert name of celebrity] for the win!"  The game was later adapted for UK television as Celebrity Squares, but without that catchphrase.

The catchphrase then, as catchphrases do, made its way into non-televised discourse. And in the age of the 140-character limit, it's been initiali{s/z}ed. The full version exists too, even in BrE. A young tweeter in Sussex, whom I won't link to because he's both underage and apparently doing something illegal, has just tweeted "VIDEO PIRACY FOR THE WIN". 

I see that the (AmE) show/(BrE) programme was back on the air with Tom Bergeron as host 1998-2004, and while I've watched a couple of wins on YouTube now, I've not heard anyone utter the phrase.  If the more recent incarnation hasn't breathed new life into the phrase, then would expect that most young Americans have no idea where FTW comes from. (And even if he did say it and it's being repeated on the Game Show Channel, I'd still not be surprised if young Americans have no idea where it came from.) But knowing the origin of an expression is no prerequisite for using it, so young people, British people, and, according to my Twitter research, an awful lot of German people are using it. I'd expect most Americans of my generation (let's just leave it as 'old enough', ok?) to remember it (maybe not immediately. We're old, you know.  I mean, 'old enough'.).

On the "that's not a word" argument. Well, that's been going on very loudly about Oxford Dictionaries' WotY, (BrE) squeezed middle. (Here's a peek at the pro and the con.)    If we're considering FTW as an alphabetism, then I point you to just about any introduction to linguistics or morphology text that lists word-formation processes of English. If it's attempting any kind of completeness, it will list 'alphabetism' or 'initialism' as a word-formation process. (Here are some examples.) And if it's a word-formation process, then, well, you know...it must form words.

If you think it's not a word because it's a phrase, I've already ignored you by having a phrase as AmE-to-BrE WotY in 2009 (go missing). For the win (like go missing) is word-like in that it is a bit of language that is learn{ed/t} as a whole, with meaning and usage constraints that go beyond the sum of its parts. That makes it [in my professional usage of the term, at least] a lexeme--something that you'll store in your mental lexicon--the dictionary in your head.* And I'm a lexicologist. We [the three or so people in the world who call themselves lexicologists] mostly deal with words, but, you know, we usually don't see a very important distinction between words and other types of lexemes when thinking about things like lexical borrowing between dialects. 
* (Or we could think of it as a lexicali{s/z}ed construction--and I like to think of things that way. But let's not try to squeeze too much of a linguistics degree into this post. It's already way past anybody's bedtime.)

It all comes down to your definition of word. We can fight about it, but I'll just phone in my part of the fight because 'word' is not a terribly useful linguistic concept.  Most people think of words as bits of writing with spaces on either side, but that doesn't work.  Less masochistic readers might want to skip this bit, but here's is part of the entry on 'Words' that I wrote for the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences:
In English orthography, word is easily defined as a unit of language that is written contiguously, with a space on each end. The notion of orthographic word is, however, circular since spaces were introduced into the written code in order to mark the boundaries between words. A more satisfying definition would help explain why such boundaries are perceived in the flow of language. Orthography is also an unreliable indicator of wordhood. Some languages do not have a written form, some orthographies
(e.g., Chinese, Lao) do not mark word boundaries, and any orthographical system is subject to fossilization and arbitrary fashions. For example, on most linguistic criteria, the compound noun ice cream is a single word, in spite of the space within it.
There is no clear linguistic definition of word, however. The most theoretically useful definitions are based on grammatical or phonological criteria [...], but their usefulness is limited by the fact that a) grammatical word and phonological word do not delimit the same set of expressions and that b) no grammatical or phonological criteria for wordhood are applicable to all types of words in all languages.

So: is it a word? Isn't it a word? It's a bit of language whose meaning is more than the sum of its parts and whose form-meaning association has to be learn{ed/t} by, and stored in the memory of, competent speakers of the language. That's good enough for me.

If you object to this word because you didn't nominate it, then you only have Ian Preston to blame for getting there first, arguing his case and attracting support.  (BrE Teacherese) Must try harder.

[added: 22 December lunchtime] But why is this the word of 2011?  In part it's because 2011 seemed to be the year of win.  We had BrE speakers complaining about AmE use of winningest (here, among other places), Charlie Sheen all over the news with Winning! (which has not caught on as much over here--nor has Two and a Half Men), lots of use of win as a mass noun.  For evidence of that, I just searched for of win use by tweeters within 50 miles of London and got a lot of results, including:
Actually - this whole site is full of win:
Samantha Halford

My graze box for tomorrow is made of win. And sadly I'll have to nom the whole thing due to the hols. What a shame :D 
[Ed: This one might need some translation. Nom was last year's runner-up for the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. Hols is BrE informal for 'holidays'. If you want to know what a graze box is...]
But among these, it was FTW that was nominated, and since it has a long history in AmE and a shorter one in BrE, it seemed a clearer instance of dialectal borrowing than the others. Why this year? Because this year is when I noticed my students using it. In fact, it was because of  Erin McKean (amazing to discover you know people with their own Wikipedia entries) and one of my English former students using it on social media on the same day that I looked it up--reali{z/s}ing that the F was probably not as bad as it sounded...

WotY signing off for another year!


  1. ISTR contestants on the most recent US version of Hollywood Squares using "(celebrity) for the win" when selecting the star who might potentially give them three in a row.

    I'm unsure whether the phrase was lifted directly from the show or not. "Win" and "(noun) win" as statements of approval, usually appearing as a standalone sentence, have been around for several years, possibly a decade, among my age group (currently late 20s) and those up to a few years younger. It also pops up as a noun for some approved-of quality or another (e.g., "This pizza is made of win.")

  2. Win as a noun was also part of hacker slang, at least as far back as the early 1980s and probably earlier.

    I myself first started hearing "for the win" in the 1990s, typically regarding video games, and particularly when discussing "finishing moves" in the then-popular fighting-game genre (e.g. "Do down-right-down three times in a row, then up-right-up for the win.")

    This is the first I've heard it traced back to Hollywood Squares, and I must admit that my initial reaction is extreme skepticism. Is there a reference of any kind for this etymology?

  3. Since you're discussing what a word is, here's a question: is "parent(s)" a word? Or is an 'orthographic word' that stands for two words "parent" and "parents"? Or both?

    I do remember watching Hollywood Squares with Tom Bergeron (and Whoopi Goldberg as the centre square always), roughly around 2001... and "for the win" was regularly used.

  4. I love it! It's been a couple years since the clever title of "winningest kitten" on kittenwar.com made me smirk, but FTW is definitely modern and appealing enough to cross borders apparently.

  5. But why was FTW chosen as the WotY? You've answered all the main objections, supported its word-ness, American-ness, etc., but didn't say why it was selected over all the other possibilities....

  6. Sorry, Lynne, but I don't like it. In fact, I don't like most initialisms, but I know it's just my preference I'm talking about. I never saw FTW, never heard it, and didn't understand it until I read your post. I also wouldn't use it. Makes me sound like a grump. Oh well...

  7. Wouldn't one of your criteria be how widespread the use of it is? I've never seen it, and even now I don't quite understand how it would make sense outside a specialised use within the technical constraints of Twitter - which is a minority interest. Since it can't be easily spoken, it's highly unlikely to spread, too (nor do the kind of people you quote inspire much confidence as leaders/initiators). I would put it in the same category as a shorthand/slang within a particular community. There's one messageboard I visit, where people use "yay!" in much the same way (and that is in the spoken language): and that's likely to be equally occasional, even ephemeral.

  8. "I'd be interested to hear if anyone does just pronounce the letters for this meaning."

    I find myself in the interesting position of knowing what it means, just from seeing people use it in context, but not having the slightest idea of the derivation and only ever having seen it written (mostly on twitter) and never heard it spoken - so can't possibly read it the way you do. To the extent that I had stopped to think wher it had come from, I had always vaguely assumed that it was backspeak for WTF.

  9. But why is "FTW" the 2011 US-to-UK WotY? As opposed to having been the 2003 one, or 2004, or 2005, or '06, '07, '08, '09, '10.

    Has there been an increase in prevalence of it (in BrE) this year that I haven't noticed? Because otherwise picking decade old slang as a Word of the Year seems a bit...idk, at odds with calling it a Word of the Year.

    (Also, I do know people who still use FTW to mean Fuck The World, even though For The Win has clearly won out - like the people who insist on using LOL as Lots Of Love. Makes everything slightly confusing, so I'm not sure your "first, get your mind out of the gutter" is entirely fair...)

  10. I never used it because I always thought that it did stand for what Malti says it sometimes stands for, and as I'm (among other things) a preacher I have to be a bit careful about the sort of language I use on a public forum. So I was delighted when a friend told me it stood for "For the Win" and have started to use it on Facebook (I had to give up on Twitter, it was too much of a time sink), among other places.

    I had forgotten "Made of win!" and "made of awesome!" that were so popular among the young a couple of years back. I used them myself once or twice, but it wasn't really me.....

  11. I hear "For the win" relatively commonly in spoken word, but then again, I am also a young 20s American so I have no real objective understanding outside of how often it is used outside of that demographic.

    For people asking why it is special though, the main post has sources from a journalist that works for The Guardian and a member of parliament, so if it has gotten that far, that certainly seems to be notable.

  12. OK, those of you who pointed out that I never said WHY it was word of the year, you are right, and that deserves correction in the actual post--so please have a look there. Sorry, it was my third 3am bedtime in a row. So much for catching up on sleep once the term is over...

    Whether it comes _directly_ from Hollywood Squares is, I would say, not entirely important. The phrase was out there in AmE, got translated into an abbreviation for the internet, and spread. It still works for me as an AmE import. Although I've presented it as the abbreviation that's imported (since that was what was nominated), I'm not strictly distinguishing that from the phrase. And since we're seeing the phrase in BrE speakers too, it looks like more than just an abbreviation that lives only on the internet.

    The internet is, however, my main way of finding evidence of current usage. It's easy to search (unlike day-to-day speech, television, radio) and completely up-to-date (unlike corpora). If anyone has recorded uses of the phrase in speech in BrE, I'd love to see them posted here!

    There are more questions to answer, but I think I'll start a new comment for those...

  13. If a lexical item spreads from American users of a corner of the Internet to British users of the same corner, does that really mean that it has spread to British English?

    I'm another Brit who has never ever seen FTW and couldn't have begun to understand it without Lynne's detailed explanation. And even if now I sort-of understand it, there's no way I would know when and how to use it.

    The community that uses FTW may be very large, but it's still a closed community. There must be hundreds of words every year that cross the Atlantic within closed communities without meaning a thing to the mainstreams of British and American users: terms of technical jargon, minority cant, verbal badges of in-group identity.

    Even within the closed user-group it would seem that many British users don't understand the item in the same way as American users. Some people on this thread have expressed a different understanding, and Lynne felt compelled to explain — by implication — what F doesn't mean.

    The major problem is that it is in Lynne's words a post-nominal (after a noun) modifier. It therefore doesn't matter to the reader what it means — which is just as well since it's so open to misinterpretation. In speech it would be a different matter; the similar use of already is rendered at least slightly meaningful by a bundle of rhythm intonation and stress.

  14. @Brian: It's definitely a catchphrase from Hollywood Squares. It's also used in sports commentary. It would certainly not surprise me if HS was not the first place it was ever used--but it certainly populari{z/s}ed it. For example, here's a 2009 example of "As they say on Hollywood Squares, I'll take Raven for the win."

    @S: Parent(s) is an orthographic word, and that's kind of all it can be, since it's not a word that can be spoken, really. It represents an under-specified for number (singular/plural) lexeme, but in speech you'd probably have to say it as a phrase 'parent or parents'.

    @Autolycus: Widespreadness is not a major criterion in SbaCL WotY because we're often looking at items that are just making their way into the dialect. They have to start somewhere. They might not spread everywhere in the dialect --that remains to be seen.
    The BrE-to-AmE WotY is also one that is news to a lot of people in the recipient dialect--but it was relevant to this year because it was news-related and a clear import. I've added more in the post about why I felt that this was appropriate to 2011. But another reason to feel that a Twitter-promulgated word is 2011ish is that 2011 is The Year of Twitter by some estimations.

    I've deleted a comment that was insulting without being constructive, but mostly because it was spam--with a username that linked to a mobile/cellphone-hawking site.

    @DavidCrosbie: I disagree that it's a 'closed' group who uses it. It may be a smallish and youngish group, but it is spreading. Think of LOL, which has spread from keen technology users to the granny who uses Facebook to keep in touch with her grandkids--there's certainly potential for FTW to spread.

    Part of the reason I'm fond of it is that it's NICE. It's about celebrating something good. I hardly ever see it used sarcastically. It's about being in a good mood. And at the end of a year like 2010, it's nice to see that people can always find things to enthuse them.

  15. I am still going to insist that a 'word' is 'that which can be entered on a Scrabble board' or 'that which can win a round of Countdown'.

  16. AmE - Well, I watched Hollywood Squares, remember Peter Marshall say, "For the win."
    I don't mind if it's a WORD word, but I must say, I've never written/said FTW in my life. But it may be an age thing.

  17. Think of LOL, which has spread from keen technology users to the granny who uses Facebook to keep in touch with her grandkids--there's certainly potential for FTW to spread.

    I did think of LOL — and saw only contrast. When you read LOL for the first time, it's clear that it means something, and that the meaning adds something. When I saw those tweets with FTW, there was nothing to suggest that it added anything to the meaning.

    I'm willing to be proved wrong, but I predict that it won't spread beyond the present group. Yes, I accept that it gives pleasure — but that pleasure is tied up with group membership.

  18. For the record, FTW is now used also in Italian – in the past year or so I have been seeing it in blog comments and on Twitter.

  19. Is FTW meaning "for the win", as distinct from the phrase "for the win", really something that's been around a while in the U.S.? It certainly seems quite new to me (American); I can't recall seeing it before the past few months. Seems to me it's not enough for "For the win" to have been around a while in the U.S. for "FTW" (with that meaning) to get US to UK work of the Year.

  20. As an American college student, my only response is Separated By A Common Language FTW!

  21. What? It doesn't mean Fut the Whuck?

  22. FWIW I think it's seriously weird to have chosen as "US-to-UK word of the year" a term / initialism / or whatever-it-is that I feel certain the vast majority of UK-English speakers will never have even heard of...

    I take a keen interest in all language matters, but clearly I led a very cloistered linguistic existence in 2011 since before reading your blog today I'd never come across it even once -- and even after reading your introduction to it I'm still not all that sure I really understand its meaning or usage!). Do people who use it really say "eff-tee-double-you", or is it just a texting-style abbreviation like the FWIW with which I started this comment? (And if it's the latter, then "FTW" is hardly "a word" at all, is it?)

    Sorry for the grump, but I'm disappointed... :-(

  23. In a recent course section on sociolinguistic variation we used texting acronyms as our fodder. Students came up with huge list and then narrowed to ten faves to survey people about. That's where I learned FTW. Survey respondents had to indicate if they knew an acronym and then provide the long form if they indicated that they did. My favorite from that portion of the project was for PMP (peeing my pants) which got the gloss: "pimp my pony." That's how I am going to use PMP in the new year.
    From Alison's sister.

  24. Um. I agree with Kevin that it is difficult to imagine FTW in spoken language - awkward to say, and more syllables than the full words. Contrast with DIY, which I also find awkward to say but at least it's shorter than do-it-yourself.
    Both seem to work best in written - or tweeted - language.
    The inappropriate [written] use of LOL can be sad - condolences followed by LOL where 'love' would have worked - surely one can spare a letter to avoid ambiguity!!

  25. As and AmE speaker of old-fartish age, my first parsing of FTW is indeed the impolite one. It can be a negative statement, but it can also be so positive that it assume the same meaning as the nicer FTW. Sort of like Jack on the bow of the Titanic, actually.

  26. This is really funny, seeing the generational gap and/or nerd gap here. I'm 23 and hang out with mostly geeks, and FTW is definitely a common interjection, both as the phrase 'for the win!' and just the letters (yes, we often pronounce it "eff tee double-u"). As far as I knew, it came from gamers and the internets, but it might not have originated there, just popularized on sites such as 4chan. (There's also a corollary 'for the fail,' but I've never seen FTF.)

    I've been working on a blog post for a while now about the differences in the way nerds speak to each other and the way we speak with non-geeks. I think it's really fascinating how even when we speak the same language, little things like slightly different sets of vocabulary and different standards of syntax can make such a difference.


  27. In the late 70s/early 80s I was friends with a number of bikers in Hertford (the English one), and many of them had 'FTW' picked out in studs on their leather jackets. It stood for 'F*** The World', and that's how I've always read it when I've seen it on the interwebs. It was only when I read this post that I realised it had another meaning.

    Many thanks for dragging my mind out of the gutter, Lynne.

  28. Massachusetts age 25-

    While I'm not surprised by Lynne's neglect I am surprised none of the previous commenters have mentioned the use of for the win in sports.

    There it's used literally for last second go ahead shots, or potentially go ahead shots, with overtones of celebratory meaning previously mentioned.

    In text I'll use both wtf and ftw.
    In speech I will spell out wtf, both to euphemise the swear, and to give myself more syllables to express myself with. I tend not to speak ftw, preferring another onlineism "WOOT!" which I pronounce to rhyme with boot.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)