‘Fake News’ crowned Word of the Year 2017
What can the prize teach us? Every 12 months, rival dictionaries attempt to capture the zeitgeist by naming their top words of the year. The result is a bizarre snapshot of recent history.
“One of the greatest of all terms I've come up with is ‘fake’,” said US president Donald Trump last week. He was referring to the term “fake news” which has become ubiquitous since he won the US general election around this time last year.
Ironically, if he is claiming that he invented the term, that is itself fake news. It actually dates back to the end of the 19th century, and fears about false reporting have plagued societies for even longer. But it is true that Trump has popularised it in the last 12 months, often levelling the charge at any journalist he thinks is out to get him.
Now Collins dictionary has declared that “fake news” is its word of the year for 2017. “It has been inescapable this year,” said Collins’s head of language content, “contributing to the undermining of society's trust in news reporting."
Many other words on the shortlist were also political, including antifa (an “antifascist organization”), echo chamber (“an environment, especially on a social media site, in which any statement of opinion is likely to be greeted with approval”) and Corbynmania (“fervent enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn”). Fidget spinner, cuffing season, and gender-fluid also made the list.
The tradition of choosing a word of the year began with the American Dialect Society’s annual conference (known as “the superbowl of linguistics”) in 1990. Dozens of langauge experts were invited to choose the first winner. They went for “bushlips”.
Now, looking back on the list provides a whistlestop tour of the last quarter century. In 1993, the winner was “information superhighway”. In 1997, “millennium bug”. In 2001, “9/11”. In 2007, “subprime” described a risky loan, and the next year “bailout” described the government’s response to the financial crash caused by those loans.
In 2004, Oxford Dictionaries began offering a British word of the year (the first was “chav”), and Collins joined in the lexical fun in 2013 (with “geek”).
How much can these words really tell us about history?
Lost for words
“Very little,” say some. Many are silly slang words or political soundbites that quickly disappear. In 100 years, what will the tears of joy emoji really tell people about life in 2015? Or, if they do relate to a genuine news story (like “occupy”), then they will give such a shallow introduction that they will essentially be useless.
“Coded in the language we use is a lot of information that we are communicating without directly saying it,” argues the head of dictionaries at Oxford University Press. The Word of the Year “allows people to dig underneath the surface of the words we use to think about what’s there”. There could be no better introduction to the past or the present.
- Which is your favourite Word of the Year winner from the last 11 years, listed in the graphic at the top of this article?
- Do the words in that list give a good overview of the last 11 years of history?
- As a class, nominate your own potential words of the year for 2017, and then vote for your favourite. If you are stuck, think about new trends in politics, technology, or slang.
- Choose one of the Word of the Year winners at the top of this article which you do not fully understand. Then research what it means, why it won that year, and whether the story behind it is still relevant today.
Some People Say...
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”Ludwig Wittgenstein
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- On October 20th, a few weeks before the US general election, Buzzfeed News did an analysis of political Facebook groups. They found that 38% of right-wing pages posted false or misleading content in the election cycle, as did 20% of left-wing pages. The discussion around fake news heated up after Trump’s election, and he soon adopted it as an accusation against many mainstream media outlets.
- What do we not know?
- How far fake news actually influenced voters in the election. Although sensational false stories often spread quickly, they tended to spread amongst those who already leaned in the direction pointed. We also do not know exactly how far Russia’s interference in the election, which often involved fake news and Facebook ads, influenced voters.
- Fake news
- Collins defines this as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. However, Trump often uses it as an accusation against any journalist or news organisation he dislikes.
- 19th century
- For example, in The Buffalo Commercial in 1891, the public was said to have “no genuine appetite for ‘fake news’”. How things change.
- Cuffing season
- The autumn-winter period when single people are apparently more likely to search for a partner.
- Not identifying with a single gender.
- This was defined as “insincere political rhetoric”. It was a reference to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, when he stated: “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Two years later, he raised taxes.
- Information superhighway
- An early name for the internet in the 1990s.
- Millennium bug
- The idea that, when the date changed from ’99 to ’00 at the millennium, computer programmes would fail or not understand the change.
- Referring to the Occupy movements, when protesters camped outside Wall Steet and other places to protest against wealth inequality.