Ze, toxic, single-use: words that defined 2018

Lingo: “Pluto” is a verb meaning “to become less relevant”, while “floss” is a dance from Fortnite.

What do they tell us about the year? Environmental catastrophe, extreme politics and gender relations… The dictionaries’ words of 2018 reveal a world battling division and destruction.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”

So wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, but what kind of language was 2018’s? As the end draws in, the flurry of dictionaries releasing their “words of the year” can give us a clue.

“Ze”, the gender-neutral substitute for “he” or “she”, has been selected by Scrabble. Officials predict it will prove popular with players, being short and high-scoring. But the choice is also topical in a year of fierce debate around trans rights and whether people should be able to choose their own gender.

Oxford Dictionaries’ choice for word of the year, “toxic”, also links to a shake-up of gender relations since the #MeToo scandal. It is often used to talk about “toxic masculinity”, which describes rigid stereotypes of male behaviour that campaigners say contribute to sex-based violence and high male suicide rates.

Equally, the political landscape from Brexit to Trump is dominated by “toxic” debate and violent rhetoric, which many fear is making politics more extreme and polarised.

“[It is] the sheer scope of its application that has made it the standout choice,” Oxford said.

Again focusing on an unstable political climate, Dictionary.com opted for “misinformation”. This is when people unknowingly share fake news (a 2017 word of the year) stories on social media. Our fears over the threat fake news poses to democracy are unlikely to go away, as better technology gives rise to deep fakes.

“Single-use” was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year. Since Blue Planet II screened last year, the environmental impact of single-use plastics has been top of the agenda.

Cambridge Dictionary’s choice is “Nomophobia”, the fear of being without your phone. It’s a reminder that screens increasingly dominate our lives, and 53% of us suffer from it.

Words of the year always reflect the trends of their time. The first such contest in 1990 was won by “bushlips” — a reference to George H.W. Bush. Other examples include “9/11” in 2001 and David Cameron’s “big society” in 2010.

Do 2018’s words paint a bleak picture?

Toxic legacy

Obviously, say some. These words highlight all the troubling currents of 2018: sexual harassment, fake news, political extremism, a ruined planet… They show us that the world around us is a threatening and more unstable place.

Think again, respond others. “Ze” shows we are realising that we must rethink gender roles for the 21st century, while the focus on “single-use” products shows we are waking up to the threat of plastic pollution. By recognising these words, we can see that society is aware of the challenges and is working towards a brighter future.

You Decide

  1. Is choosing a “word of the year” a waste of time?
  2. We use language to describe our thoughts, but can our thoughts be shaped by language?

Activities

  1. Choose your own word of the year. Select one that is not mentioned in this article.
  2. Look up the Collins Dictionary words of the year for the last 10 years. For each one, write a sentence or two explaining the significance of that word to the world at the time.

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?
Scrabble — a board game in which you make words — has released a list of new words. Its choice for word of the year, “Ze”, is a gender-neutral pronoun. A number of other dictionaries have announced their words of the year for 2018, with winners including “toxic”, “misinformation”, “single-use” and “nomophobia”, a fear of being without your smartphone.
What do we not know?
How important the exercise of choosing a word of the year is. Some people see it is as a silly waste of time that dictionaries use as a publicity stunt. However, some linguists argue that the words we use shape our societies and the way we think, so looking at popular words can tell us about the modern world.

Word Watch

High-scoring
Uncommon letters are worth more when they are played. For example, “Z” is worth 10 points.
Topical
Relevant because it is related to current events.
Suicide
Men account for three in every four suicides in the UK. Campaigners say this is because traditional gender roles put pressure on men to suppress their emotions, which can worsen mental health problems.
Polarised
Divided sharply into two opposing groups.
Deep fakes
An artificial intelligence technology that can create fake images and videos of humans that look real. Trolls could use this to spread fake videos of politicians saying controversial things to sway elections.
53%
According to a study conducted by YouGov for the UK Post Office in 2010.
1990
Held by the American Dialect Society.
Bushlips
US president from 1989–93, he died last month aged 94. He famously said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” After he broke his promise, “bushlips” became a term for “insincere political rhetoric”.

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