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Word of the Year

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Both the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries have recently published their Word of the Year choices. Oxford Dictionaries has gone for youthquake – which it defines as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”. Cambridge Dictionary chooses populism - “political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want”, with the usage note (mainly disapproving).

What’s the point, I wonder, of choosing a Word of the Year? It must, in part, be a marketing tool, generating mildly interesting news media coverage and thus selling more dictionaries. Of course the marketing tool works because everyone can have an opinion about the choice, either disagreeing and suggesting their own choice, or agreeing because the chosen word indeed sums up some social trend which we may have sensed but not actually articulated. At root, interest in the Word of the Year reflects the power of language: that a word can both reflect reality, in the sense that we recognise that its meaning fits our experience reasonably accurately ... and even form reality, in that the word crystallises a new aspect of our consensus about the world.

It is worth having a look at a couple of pages related to these Word of the Year choices. Oxford has posted a blog about selecting the Word of the Year , by Casper Grathwohl who was in charge of the process; while Cambridge has a clear and concise explanation of the thinking behind the choice of populism.

Both commentaries indicate that these choices are based primarily on hard data about how often a word was used in the year in question, but it seems that Oxford and Cambridge use different sources. The Oxford blog mentions “scanning through the public conversations that characterized the past twelve months”, which presumably means carrying out online searches in some form; whereas Cambridge refers to “searches... on the online Cambridge Dictionary”. I imagine lexicographers have vicious professional arguments about which of these is the most suitable database! Both Oxford and Cambridge then refer to ‘spikes’ related to real-life events – when words suddenly appear to be used much more often. Working on these ‘spikes’, the selection committee then adds in a whole subjective dimension, aiming to select a word which most acutely reflects their impression of ...what?... the spirit of the year?

The two Words of the Year are interesting, for somewhat different reasons:

  • Youthquake is actually a new word for me: I literally hadn’t heard of it before Oxford drew it to attention. However, it does express a novel nuance of meaning – the idea of a movement of ideas among youth which changes society as a whole. I note that it was originally coined in 1968 in response to the force of young British designers and artists on fashion and art, so the underlying concept has been around for some time ... perhaps for ever? The blog author, Casper Grathwohl, seems to think that word and concept are optimistic, since they point to invigorating youthful change, but is such change necessarily so positive? And is there anything particularly new in current circumstances? And anyway, given the ever-rising proportion of older people in populations, might there be a corresponding reaction – suggesting the new term ‘grayquake’?
  • Populism is a pretty familiar term, and I’m a bit surprised that it is considered so striking by Cambridge. What is curious is the definition provided: isn’t ‘giving ordinary people what they want’ the whole purpose of the sacred process of democracy? Well, not entirely, because the definition suggests that the “political ideas and activities” are used exclusively to ‘get support’ – the implication being that populism is essentially manipulative, a cynical means to achieve power, hence the ‘mainly disapproving’ usage. Perhaps there ought to be a distinction between populism as means (in order to get power), and as end (in order to give sustainable power to the people) - in which case, I propose 'mainly disapproving' for the first, and 'mainly approving' for the second.

And finally, what about the following terms from Oxford’s final shortlist, the runners-up to youthquake?

Antifa  [noun; treated as singular or plural] a political protest movement comprising autonomous groups affiliated by their militant opposition to fascism and other forms of extreme right-wing ideology

Broflake  [derogatory, informal] a man who is readily upset or offended by progressive attitudes that conflict with his more conventional or conservative views

Gorpcore [noun] a style of dress incorporating utilitarian clothing of a type worn for outdoor activities

Kompromat [mass noun] compromising information collected for use in blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating someone, typically for political purposes

Milkshake Duck a person or thing that initially inspires delight on social media but is soon revealed to have a distasteful or repugnant past

Newsjacking [mass noun; marketing ] the practice of taking advantage of current events or news stories in such a way as to promote or advertise one's product or brand

Unicorn denoting something, especially an item of food or drink, that is dyed in rainbow colours, decorated with glitter, etc.

White fragility [mass noun] discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice

Any bets on which of these will last?


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