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. The choice is topical in a year of fierce debate about 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 stereotypes of male behaviour that campaigners say lead to sexual violence and high male suicide rates.

Equally, politics 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.

“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.

Do 2018’s words paint a bleak picture?

Toxic legacy

Obviously, say some. These words highlight all the troubling trends 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 working towards a brighter future.

You Decide

  1. Is choosing a “word of the year” a waste of time?

Activities

  1. Choose your own word of the year. Select one that is not mentioned in this article.

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?
A number of 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 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

Topical
Relevant because it is related to current events.
Gender
Whether you identify as a male or female, which can be different to the sex you were given at birth.
Stereotypes
A widely held but untrue belief about a particular group of people, in this case men.
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.
Rhetoric
Language that is designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect.
Polarised
Divided sharply into two opposing groups.