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Words We Didn’t Hear

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Words We Didn’t Hear

“Word of the Year” awards reflect the prejudices of their judges, not actual usage. December 26, 2017
Arts and Culture

Merriam-Webster named “feminism” its Word of the Year for 2017—not 1971, as might have been more appropriate.

Oxford Dictionaries selected a similarly politically charged term, albeit one more obscure than the ubiquitous “feminism.” The company defines “youthquake” as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” That seems neutral enough, until one understands that it was UK Labour Party gains, fueled by the youth vote, that led to the company’s elevation of a term that, as a befuddled Washington Post pointed out, nobody really uses.

The reference company’s shortlist for consideration included “Antifa,” “White Fragility” (two words?), and “Broflake,” defined as “a man who is readily upset or offended by progressive attitudes that conflict with his more conventional or conservative views.” At the risk of sounding like a broflake, or telegraphing my white fragility: someone at Oxford really, really wanted the Word of the Year to serve (in terms best understood with the assistance of the OED) as a brickbat to ensanguine mossbacked atavists.

Urban Dictionary, a newer competitor of sorts to the OED, includes in its entries “lexiconnoisseur,” defined as “a person who makes up words, and then tells everyone about said word.” Surely as neologisms go, lexiconnoisseur beats youthquake—and describes its boosters. went with “complicit,” which initially appears to be a perfectly cromulent and un-weaponized word. But in explaining its choice, the popular website cited the complicity of various politicians in aiding and abetting Donald Trump’s agenda. “Climate change has been thrust into the spotlight this year with President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement,” claims. “Additionally, the new EPA chief Scott Pruitt has been complicit in his refusal to acknowledge that humans play a primary role in climate change.”

People making dictionaries fixate on political terms. People using dictionaries do not. One senses from the politicized choices for Word of the Year that “totalitarian” would be a more appropriate choice for the honor. In 2017, seemingly apolitical activities, such as baking a cake or playing football, took on inflated ideological connotations. Even awarding a Word of the Year becomes a chance to drive an agenda. Given that some of the bodies announcing the Word of the Year once relied on the interest of readers—evaluating such metrics as the number of times they looked up particular words—but now decree from on high a Word of the Year, “totalitarian” seems on the comeback route, as we veer toward a total-politics mindset.

Words say something about what they signify and about those who use them. In 2017, a year in which sexual harassment and abuse dominated headlines, “feminism” perhaps enjoyed an I-am-woman-hear-me-roar annum, but in a way tangential to the main story—not as its Word of the Year well-wishers wished. Youthquake? Did anyone speak or hear that compound non-word before Oxford foisted it upon us? Complicit? The word fits for an accessory to murder but not so easily for one advancing the agenda of a duly elected president. In selecting these as the year’s supposed buzzwords, the ventriloquists at Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and put words in our mouths. The words define them more than they do us.

A better candidate for 2017’s word of the year can be found in a 36-year-old Kinks song. “Predictable,” Ray Davies sang in 1981, “yeah, that’s the word of the year.” Davies, who boasts a better track record with the English language than the philologists, glossarists, and other word weirdos insisting that they know best what words we should use, drew a bead on our times earlier than most. But as Ray sang: “Don’t know why I’m even bothering.”

Photo by VvoeVale/iStock

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