2017 in review: the words that defined a year

Flavour of the year: This year’s choices were a mixture of old words and new terms.

What can “words of the year” tell us about the last 12 months? From fake news to fidget spinners to the robot apocalypse, 2017’s defining words vary from the playful to the deadly serious.

December is dictionary month. At the end of every year these trusty, unsung tomes have their time in the spotlight. As normal publications round up the year with a conventional look at the year’s big stories, the editors of dictionaries aim to define the year through words.

Judging by 2017’s selections, it has been a year of political turmoil. Collins dictionary named “fake news” its word of the year for what it called the term’s “ubiquitous presence”. A favourite of Donald Trump, “fake news” is defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.

Elsewhere Dictionary.com chose “complicit”. The word initially soared in popularity in 2017 thanks to a Saturday Night Live satirical ad for an Ivanka Trump-branded perfume called “Complicit” — with the tagline: “the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t”.

From NFL players protesting at the treatment of minorities to people speaking out against sexual harassment, those who refused to be complicit were at the centre of some of the biggest news stories of the year, the dictionary said.

Then there is “feminism” — Merriam Webster’s choice. Searches for the word increased 70% in 2017, the dictionary said, and spiked after key events like the Women’s March on Washington and during the #MeToo movement.

But not everything was relentlessly political. Collins named “fidget spinner” as an honourable mention, also highlighting the term “cuffing season” — “the period of autumn and winter, when single people are considered likely to seek settled relationships rather than engage in casual affairs”.

Then there is “syzygy”, one of Merriam-Webster’s runners-up. It means “the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies, such as the Sun, Moon and Earth during a solar or lunar eclipse”. Searches for the term surged around the time of this summer’s US solar eclipse. It also received a bump during December’s rare “supermoon” sighting.

But all the major prizes went to political terms. Was 2017 the year politics became an unhealthy obsession?

Political animals

Some say that 2017 will always be remembered as the year of The Donald. So it is inevitable that the year’s most emblematic words have a political bent. The tumultuous first year of the Trump era has energised the opinion-forming classes to an extraordinary extent. You could not be apolitical in 2017.

Rubbish, reply others. First, fighting for a cause is a great thing, and should not be dismissed as an “unhealthy obsession”. Second, the fascination surrounding the solar eclipse proves that people are still able to overcome politics. Even in such an eventful year, most people carried on as normal.

You Decide

  1. What would be your word of the year?
  2. Was 2017 the year we became too obsessed with politics?

Activities

  1. Write one paragraph using each of the winning or shortlisted words mentioned in the article.
  2. What do you think will be the word of the year in 2018? Write 500 words explaining your choice.

Some People Say...

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

Rudyard Kipling

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Words of the year are picked in order to reflect on the current trends. Since the first ever such contest in 1990, the winners have been a mixture of neologisms — completely new words, like “blog”, the winner in 2004 — and old words which come back into fashion. We know that 2017 follows 2016 with words relating to politics dominating each dictionary’s choices.
What do we not know?
The words which will become or will be invented for the choices of 2018. Early suggestions have included “bitcoin” and “impeachment”, but who could have predicted that “fidget spinners” would feature so heavily in 2017? Nor are we able to foretell to what extent people will associate “fake news” and “feminism” with 2017 in, say, ten years’ time.

Word Watch

Fake news
Donald Trump has tweeted the term “fake news” more than 160 times since becoming president. Yesterday he tweeted: “Wow, more than 90% of Fake News Media coverage of me is negative, with numerous forced retractions of untrue stories.”
Women’s March on Washington
The Washington March attracted from 440,000 to 500,000 people, and worldwide participation has been estimated at over five million. It was the largest single-day protest in American history.
Fidget spinner
The toys peaked in popularity in late May. Since then, however, Google searches for fidget spinners have dropped by nearly two thirds.
Syzygy
Pronounced “Si-zuh-jee”.
Supermoon
A supermoon happens when the full moon coincides with the Moon’s closest approach to Earth in its orbit. Supermoons make the Moon appear a little brighter and closer than normal, although the difference is hard to spot with the naked eye.

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