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Fashion & trend

Wednesday 13 March 2019

The OUP Word of the Year award has been announced - and it's 'toxic'. It's a curious procedure, this 'Best of the Year' idea: why do we think it's worthwhile to nominate a Film of the Year, or a Van of the Year, or a Toothbrush of the Year? Perhaps OUP organised a kind of Oscar ceremony, with Toxic making a stammering, embarrassing speech, thanking all its roots and associations, and especially all those humans who so generously used it in 2018... if so, I'm glad I missed it.

Part of the rationale for 'Best of...' awards is simply publicity, of course. If OUP's Word of the Year surfaces in lots of media reports, that's good for OUP's profile, and presumably sells more OUP books. More significantly, OUP's website page on the award claims that the intention is to "reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year" and that the winning term should be "a term of cultural significance".

Surveying the winner and the runners up in the short list, I suggest that ‘cultural significance’ can be divided into two elements: ‘trend’ and ‘fashion’. I take a ‘trend’ to be a cultural element which is deeper and more lasting than a ‘fashion’, which is more superficial and transient.

OUP’s detailed report on why ‘toxic’ was chosen establishes that the word’s use is indeed a trend. This judgement is based both on objective data and on semantic evaluation. Apparently, there has been a 45% rise in the number of times ‘toxic’ has been looked up in online OUP dictionaries; but also, the OUP’s corpus indicates that the adjective has been used in an unusually wide number of contexts, covering both literal and metaphorical meanings, ranging from ‘toxic chemicals’ to ‘toxic masculinity’.All of this supports the judgement that the use of ‘toxic’ is an indicator of a significant cultural trend: the perception of multiple poisons in the world of 2018.

Of the runners up (and place the cursor on the little icon to see OUP's definition of each term), I reckon that ‘overtourism’ and ‘cakeism’ are both trends: ‘overtourism’ encapsulates the perception that excessive tourism damages the very sites that people want to see; while ‘cakeism’, arising from the Brexit fantasy of having your cake and eating it, encapsulates a trend towards trying to have everything you want regardless of reality.

But what of ‘fashion’? Three of the runners up fit this category, I reckon. The shorthand ‘BDE’ or 'Big Dick Energy’  seems to have spun off an original tweet, and caught temporary attention, but presumably the context will soon be forgotten. The use of ‘gammon’ has arisen from the red-faced choler of pro-Brexit debaters, and may well disappear when (or… gulp… if) the Brexit furor finally dies. And the use of ‘incel’ was apparently stimulated by a nasty mass-murder in Canada, hopefully a one-off spike of attention to the frustrations of a pretty small social group. I predict that none of these terms will last because they are dependent on the transient perceptions of passing events.

The final three runners up hover between fashion and trend, I propose – they are prompted by minor or passing references, but still express concepts of general relevance and usefulness. ‘Orbiting’  depends on particular behaviour in social networks – but presumably social networks are going to be around a long time, and so the term will continue to be socially significant. The same general context applies to ‘techlash’ , but such backlash against technology may turn out to be a merely temporary historical phenomenon. The problem with  ‘gaslighting’  is that the term is only resonant if you know something of the ancient black and white film Gaslight – but if you do know the plot of the film, then the vision of psychological manipulation that the verb sums up is permanently useful. In short, then, perhaps none of these three terms, useful as they may be, have deep enough roots to make it out of ‘fashion’ into ‘trend’.


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