Every year, TIME Magazine chooses someone as the Person of the Year, and this year it was Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. Most of us already know that. But what a lot of us don’t know is that every year Oxford Dictionaries chooses a Word of the Year. They elect a word or expression that has had constant usage and reflects the ethos, mood, and preoccupation of the passing year. They also favor words that they think will have lasting potential as an expression or word of cultural significance. In other words, words that reflect our changing times.
In 2019, the winner was the expression ‘climate emergency’ and interestingly, their entire short list of words for Word of the Year was related to the environment. Oxford explained that the expression ‘climate emergency’ “reflects it was a real preoccupation of the English-speaking world in 2019.”
In case you don’t know, Oxford Dictionary defines climate emergency as “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it”.
Climate change is what Greta Thunberg’s movement is all about. It is not exactly the same as global warming. Global warming is one aspect of climate change and refers to the rise in global temperature mainly because of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change refers to the increasing changes in the measure of climate over a long time. Climate emergency is even scarier. In the UK, the parliament declared a climate change emergency last May, and many thought it was a much bigger issue than Brexit. The U.S.A suffered from more extreme weather than usual in 2019: tornados, flooding, paralyzing cold, unprecedented heat and resulting forest fires. Brazil was in the news in 2019 for not acting on climate change and also because of fires in the Amazon rainforest. The tragedy of those fires is that they are not caused naturally, but instead are almost always caused by humans, accidentally or intentionally. Greta Thunberg and 15 other young people from around the world filed a legal complaint against Brazil and four other countries that they named as the world’s biggest global carbon polluters. They allege that the governments of these countries lack action to combat climate change and that violates their rights as children.
In the U.S.A., a Word of the Year is elected by the American on-line dictionary, dictionary.com. They chose a different, but related word in 2019; the adjective ‘existential’ which generally means ‘of or relating to existence’. This word has been in use since the 1600s, and used to be used in the sense of relating to existence. Philosophers once wrote about existentialism as individual existence, freedom, choice, and rational decisions in spite of living in an irrational universe. Nowadays the word is is more often used to describe something that is at risk, such as an existential threat to a species. Dictionary.com explained that the word existential illustrates the human species’ alarming fight for survival against the problems of climate change, violence and everything else that is happening to our planet and way of life. The word was one of the most looked up ones in 2019.
Let’s go back a full year and see what people were concerned about enough or curious enough to be looking up in dictionaries. In the year 2018, the word ‘toxic’ was Oxford’s Word of the Year. It is a word from the 17th century, but in 2018 it had a 45% increase in the number of times it had been looked up on their site on the internet. The word toxic basically means poisoned. But in 2018, the word was principally used alongside the following words, all of which we worry about and talk about:
But on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, dictionary.com chose a completely different word for 2018: the noun ‘misinformation’. Misinformation is not necessarily a lie. It is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” Social scientists say that misinformation is not something that can be fixed, but is instead a social condition, not unlike crime, that must be monitored adjusted to by society. There is also the word ‘disinformation’ which is a lie. Disinformation means deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.
In 2018, Facebook was deeply embroiled in serious problems because of misinformation. American political parties had become enemies and were promoting misinformation. At the same time, Brazil had become a world leader in WhatsApp misinformation. The New York Times partnered with the Federal University of Minas Gerais and with the University of São Paulo as well as Agência Lupa on a project in which they discovered that 56% of the images circulating on WhatsApp in Brazil were misinformation of some sort.
If we go all the way back to 2017, Oxford’s Word of the Year was not such a negative reflection on our society. That year their chosen word was ‘youthquake’. Youthquake means a significant cultural, political or social change that comes from the actions or influence of young people. The word was coined in the 1960s by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to describe how British youth were changing fashion and music around the world. We could say that Greta Thunberg led a youthquake in 2019. But in 2017, it was British youth who greatly influenced their election when 62% of the 18-24-year-olds voted for the Labour Party. In Brazil, 2017 was the year of a nationwide general strike that closed schools, disrupted transportation in general and affected just about everybody. Brazilian youth did not start the strike and its consequent street protests, but they certainly participated. American youth was not particularly outstanding in 2017. As a matter of fact, that was the year that gun deaths overtook car accidents as the leading killer of youth in the United States.
Across the ocean, dictionary.com chose the word ‘complicit’ as their Word of the Year in 2017. This word does not speak well of society as a whole, but it is not surprising that a record number of people looked it up in 2017.
In the United States, a lot of reports were released that year about humanity’s complicity in contributing to climate change. There were still others about the normalizing of hate groups and supremacist groups through complicity, and the enabling of sexual harassment in much the same way. That was the year that the Harvey Weinstein story came to light. Weinstein was a Tony and an Academy Award winning film producer who had apparently harassed countless Hollywood stars sexually; stars who never spoke out until 2017. That year, enough of them spoke out that he was dismissed from his own company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The more than 80 women who have accused Weinstein of rape and other types of sexual harassment kick-started the #MeToo movement. As of this writing, Weinstein is out on bail and awaiting trial in NYC.
2017 was the first year of the Trump administration, and the word complicity was in the news a lot because of the accusations of Trump’s ties with Russia and that country’s interference in the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, was named Senior Advisor to the President of the United States in 2017, and from day 1 was accused of complicity with her father because it was thought that she failed to speak up when her father took measures that she had spoken out against in the past. The Word of the Year was used so much with the First Daughter that actress Scarlett Johansson did a skit on SNL in which she played Ivanka Trump advertising a new perfume called “Complicit.”
The British were not particularly complicit in 2017, although Trump’s complicity was in the news incessantly over there. But they had other problems that year: the terrible Grenfell Tower fire in West London, the London Bridge terrorist attack and the Manchester terrorist attack all occurred in 2017.
Here in Brazil, the word complicit was not particularly in the news either. We we caught up in a presidential election campaign and all the contention that always arises during important elections. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, the number of people in extreme poverty in Brazil had gone up by 4% from the previous year, to a total of almost 55 million people living in such circumstances in 2017.
The murder rate had also gone up from the previous year, to 30.8 per 100,000 people. Just for comparison, Mexico, that drug-scarred country that is the venue of so many movies and TV series, had a homicide rate of 20 per 100,000 people in 2017. The far-right presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, campaigned with the promise to loosen gun laws and toughen policing if elected. He was elected. People were way too busy discussing the election and Brazil’s basic problems in 2017 to worry about complicity and its nuances.
Being aware that any WOTY not only updates our vocabulary, but also gets us to thinking about what other people are concerned about in today’s world. It is a way in which computer-age technology is used without intruding in other people’s lives to form intelligent opinions and voice our concerns in a more knowledgeable manner.