As one who loves language and is fascinated by words, I spend some time every year thinking about the words that have seemed somehow to capture or define the year. And what a year 2016 has been for words! Unfortunately, many of these words have been full of hate, ridicule, or misinformation: “lock her up,” for example, or “loser,” or words appearing on social media that I won’t repeat here.
So groups who regularly decide on a “word of the year” had their work cut out for them this year. Merriam-Webster ended up choosing “surreal,” which they define as “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream” – or a nightmare. The folks at Merriam-Webster traced the spike of “lookups” of various words, finding that people looked up “surreal” in large numbers beginning with the terrorist attacks in Brussels last spring and then spiking again with the coup attempt in Turkey, the terrorist attacks in Nice, and then the biggest spike of all following the U.S. election in November. Surreal.
The Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, an “adjective defined as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Dictionary.com chose “xenophobia” and the Cambridge Dictionary “paranoid.” Another nominee high on most lists was “fake news.”
It’s a pretty depressing list: surreal, post-truth, xenophobia, paranoid, fake news. In fact, so depressing that Dennis Baron, whose instructive blog “The Web of Language” is a must read for me, decided that the word of the year was “too terrible to name.” Tongue firmly in cheek, Baron writes:
President-elect Voldemort announced that when he takes office on January 20, his first official act will be to deport all foreign words. Voldemort told supporters at a rally in Ohio this week that he will build a wall around the English language, and make the lexicographers pay for it. Which they greeted with an enthusiastic chorus of, "Build the wall." And then they shouted the 2016 word of the year, the word that shall not be named.
I appreciate Baron’s humor and would just note that many countries have tried to build a wall around language (see France, for example). So the U.S. wouldn’t be the first to try to deport foreign words. Or the last.
All this thinking about words of the year left me confused as well as depressed. So what would I choose as word of the year 2016? I’m very tempted to go along with post-truth or fake news, because these phenomena pose such a serious, terrifying threat to rational discourse and to any kind of true understanding. But instead, I keep coming back to a phrase rather than a word: the Saturday after the election, Kate McKinnon sat at a piano on Saturday Night Live, in her Hillary Clinton outfit, and sang several verses from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” They were poignant at the least, elegiac and elegant too. Then she turned toward the camera and said “Don’t give up. I won’t and neither should you.” So I think I’ll choose “don’t give up” as my phrase of the year: it should give me good company as we head into 2017. What’s your word of the year?
Source: Saturday Night Live, Election Week Cold Open - SNL - YouTube