A bigly, post-truth, surreal 2016 ends …

In one year, out the other: These were among the most important words in 2016, say experts.

‘Post-truth’, ‘hate crime’, ‘xenophobia’: the world’s leading dictionaries have revealed their words of the year. What do they say about 2016, and how can they help us in the months ahead?

Dictionaries rarely make headlines. But come winter, they get their moment. This is when editors look at the most popular search terms of the last 12 months and pick their words of the year. The media reports the results with enthusiasm.

Judging by this year’s crop, 2016 has been a year of confusion and fear. Merriam-Webster’s winner was ‘surreal’. Interest in the word spiked after terrorist attacks in Belgium and France, the coup in Turkey, and Donald Trump’s election. It applies to ‘moments of both tragedy and surprise’, explained the editors.

Oxford Dictionaries chose ‘post-truth’, a term that defines the declining influence of facts on public opinion. It suits a year in which politics has been shaped by blatant lies and fake news stories. This was partly true of the campaign for ‘Brexit’ – Collins’s word of the year. Noting that ‘fear of the other’ has been a major theme in 2016, Dictionary.com went for ‘xenophobia’.

Of course, words of the year reflect the trends of their time. The first ever such contest, held by the American Dialect Society in 1990, was won by ‘bushlips’ – a reference to George H.W. Bush. Other examples include ‘9–11’ (in 2001), ‘blog’ (2004) and ‘big society’ (2010). Some are neologisms, others are old words given new life. Some last, others die.

This year, the dictionaries’ shortlists reflect all sorts of cultural goings-on. ‘Chatbot’ is a nod to developments in AI. ‘Hygge’, originally a Danish word, describes the current craze for relaxed, healthy lifestyles. ‘Coulrophobia’ – a fear of clowns – recalls that weird killer-clown mania.

Unsurprisingly, though, words relating to the year’s chaotic politics dominate. As well as the winners, they include ‘hate crime’, ‘populism’, ‘Trumpism’, ‘alt-right’ and ‘deplorable’. Oxford chose ‘woke’, an adjective meaning ‘alert, informed’, which became a rallying cry for black Americans as they faced renewed violence from the police.

All of this points to a year of major upheaval. As 2016 draws to a close, can we take comfort from the words that defined it?

Wise words

This year made no sense, say some. Wars raged. Terrorism grew. Disease spread. Celebrities dropped like flies. Bigotry trumped tolerance. Lying became acceptable. And a 70-year-old child was made the world’s most powerful man. In the face of such mayhem, it is hard to know what to do. ‘Surreal’ sums it up.

Cheer up, reply others. If 2016 has shown us anything, it is that problems have solutions. Huge progress was made in the fight against disease. Revolutions in Europe and America got a new generation interested in politics. Social media gave them a louder voice than ever. ‘Woke’ is the word: stay informed and don’t give up.

You Decide

  1. What is your word of the year? (Pick one that is not mentioned in the article.)
  2. Read Amy Reynolds’s article in Become An Expert. Do you think dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive?

Activities

  1. As a class, come up with ten words that could be big in 2017.
  2. Write one sentence using each of the winning or shortlisted words mentioned in the article.

Some People Say...

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper.”

Maya Angelou

What do you think?

Q & A

What is the point of these contests?
Not only do they point out the big issues of the day, they shed light on how public opinion is formed. Some of these words, such as ‘deplorable’, are popularised by one influential person. Others, like ‘surreal’, spread in more subtle ways: through social media, blog posts, private conversations. Language, it is often said, is a mirror of society.
How are the winners chosen?
Editors look at the words that experienced the biggest ‘spike’ in usage (or in searches on their website) that year. From the shortlist, they select the word that embodies ‘a general characteristic of our age’ (Oxford), ‘a major theme resonating deeply in the cultural consciousness’ (Dictionary.com), etc. Other organisations, like the American Dialect Society, get members to vote.

Word Watch

Post-truth
Originally, this word simply meant ‘after the truth was known’. Its current sense – describing a scenario in which truth has become irrelevant – dates from 1992.
American Dialect Society
An organisation that studies the features of American English. Although it popularised ‘word of the year’ contests in the English-speaking world, these already existed in other countries, such as Germany.
George H.W. Bush
US president 1989–93. He famously said: ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’ After he broke his promise, ‘bushlips’ became a term for ‘insincere political rhetoric’.
Big society
A political vision, introduced by David Cameron, that placed more responsibility for the running of society on volunteers and local communities.
Neologisms
New words.
Deplorable
Hillary Clinton infamously used this word, which means ‘appalling’, to describe half of all Trump supporters.
Woke
See Become An Expert.
Huge progress
For example, British scientists testing a new HIV cure announced a ‘remarkable’ breakthrough in October, after the treatment appeared to remove the virus from a man’s body.