This was originally posted on January 22nd, 2015.
Surprisingly (to me at least), Merriam Webster announced “culture” as their Word of the Year for 2014, noting that it was the single most-searched-for term during the last twelve months, coming in ahead of “nostalgia,” the second most-searched-for word. Over at Oxford, they pronounced “vape” the word of the year, in a nod to the e-cigarette movement. And dictionary.com went with “exposure,” related to the fears surrounding Ebola.
Of these words, “nostalgia” makes the most sense to me, given that so many 50-years-after events, such as passage of the Civil Rights Act, came to mind. But after I read Dennis Baron’s year-ending post on his Web of Language blog, I sat down to think again. Baron selects “torture” for his 2014 word of the year because, he says, “it’s the epitome of what went wrong, not just with counterterrorism, but with everything.” He has a point. Given the series of beheadings, abduction and massacre of children, and ongoing unspeakable atrocities of ISIS, “torture” seems like a pretty good choice. The argument raging around this word is, of course, partially a definitional one: are “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding “torture.” For now, the answer in the U.S. seems to be a resounding yes, despite former Vice President Dick Cheney’s avowal that he would “do it again in a heartbeat.” (Check out Baron’s entire posting here.)
But I believe there are alternatives to “torture” as the word of the year for 2014. Among the many signs of such alternatives, I would spotlight a young Pakistani woman, shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating schooling for all children. You know her already—Malala Yousafzai, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (presented jointly to Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for their “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”).
What’s the word I would choose to characterize Yousafzai? Many come to mind, but to me, “perseverance” comes closest to what she represents to me—her absolute refusal to give in to murderous attacks and intimidation, her absolute perseverance in pursuing the cause of education for all. That word also captures the heroism of doctors and nurses across the African nations most affected by Ebola. And the voices of all those this past year who have protested against oppression and for social justice for all. Perseverance.
I wonder what your word of the year might be—and even more I wonder what your students’ word of the year is. I intend to ask this question in the coming months as I visit colleges and universities around the country. For now, I’m sticking with “perseverance.”
[Photo: Malala Yousafzai photo by K. Opprann from Nobelprize.org]