As always at this time of year, I’m checking to see what words have been called out as especially characteristic or indicative of the year we have just endured. The first one I came across was from Merriam-Webster, which chose “justice,” their Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski saying that “the pursuit of justice and the potential of obstruction of that pursuit are at the eye of the storm” today. Sokolowski goes on to note that people looked up the term “justice” in surges, especially around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, and during President Trump’s many attacks on the Department of Justice.
The venerable Oxford English Dictionary opted for “toxic,” defining the word as “poisonous” and noting that it captured the atmosphere in many countries this last year. Dictionary.com went for “misinformation” for absolutely obvious reasons, as we are currently awash in what the dictionary calls “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” And the Cambridge Dictionary chose “nomophobia”—the fear of being without a mobile phone or being able to use it—as their word of the year.
Others weighed in with their own nominations. In an article for the Cleburne Times Review, Steve and Cokie Roberts lamented the government’s current “amnesia” regarding two important words: “debt” and “deficit.” They argue that “rapidly rising debt payments will squeeze the government’s ability to serve as a safety net for needy Americans,” that our government will spend more money on interest than on children in the coming year, and that the fact that half of our national debt is held by China and other foreign countries all means we face “a dire threat to our economic and national security.” They then choose their word of the year, saying “But when it comes to that threat, the word of the year from most official Washington is simply ‘silence.’”
Of all these offerings, I gravitate most to “toxic,” which seems to capture in five letters the sense of ill-will, distrust, and sickness—both physical and mental-- that seems to permeate the air we are breathing these days. So I could certainly go with that as a word of the year. But as I’ve tried to think what one word I have heard over and over and over in the past year, another one comes to my mind: “unprecedented,” meaning something that hasn’t been done before. I believe I have heard this word at least several times on almost every newscast I have heard during 2018, most of them attached to something that our current President has done—or not done. From “unprecedented actions on asylum,” to “unprecedented actions against gun control,” to “unprecedented move to install a right-wing activist on the National Security Council,” to “unprecedented number of unfilled government positions,” and to “unprecedented unilateral decisions affecting national security”—not even to mention unprecedented tweeting. During one evening news cycle during December, I counted 18 uses of the term! Of course, unprecedented things can be good or bad, but my informal survey suggests that when this word is attached to the current government, its connotations are almost always negative.
Maybe teachers of writing should get in the act, naming our words of the year and asking our students to do the same. I wonder, for example, how students would evaluate the words offered here, how they would define them, and what better nominations they might have in mind. We could do a lot worse than begin the new year with a careful and thorough analysis of words that characterize our current moment. For my part, I’m going to be watching Congress closely to see if they take some unprecedented actions that will help lead to justice and to peace.
What is your word of the year? Leave a comment below!
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