College Words of the Year: Drunkorexia, FOMO, Kony, Shmacked, Thrifting . . .

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 noticed a small number of words appearing more frequently, prominently or controversially during the past two semesters on campuses nationwide. Some were brand-new. Others were redefined or reached a tipping point of interest or popularity. And still others showed a remarkable staying power, carrying over from semesters and years past.

I’ve selected 15 as finalists for what I am calling the “2011-2012 College Word of the Year Contest.” OK, 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.


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.

A brief homestay has long been an option favored by some fresh graduates, but it’s recently reemerged in the media as a defining activity of the current student generation.  “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.”


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.

The affliction, which leaves students hungry and at times hung over, involves “starving all day to drink at night.” As a March report in The Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania further explained, it centers on students “bingeing or skipping meals in order to either compensate for alcohol calories consumed later at night, or to get drunk faster. . . . At its most severe, it is a combination of an eating disorder and alcohol dependency.”

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.”


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.


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.)

This ever-present emotional-digital anxiety now has a defining acronym: FOMO or Fear of Missing Out.  Recent Georgetown University graduate Kinne Chapin confirmed FOMO “is a widespread problem on college campuses. Each weekend, I have a conversation with a friend of mine in which one of us expresses the following: ‘I’m not really in the mood to go out, but I feel like I should.’ Even when we’d rather catch up on sleep or melt our brain with some reality television, we feel compelled to seek bigger and better things from our weekend. We fear that if we don’t partake in every Saturday night’s fever, something truly amazing will happen, leaving us hopelessly behind.”


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.”

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.

These parents constantly phone, text, e-mail and tweet at their undergraduate kids, along with monitoring all social media activity.  They contact professors, admissions counselors and nowadays even employers to promote their children or check on the status of their work. They try to Facebook friend their son’s or daughter’s classmates and significant others and, separately, ensure they have a say in every major and minor life decision– even when it leaves their children exasperated, rebellious or clinically depressed.

To check out the rest of my College Word of the Year nominees, click here or on the screenshot below.

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