Word of the Year (WOTY) 2016: Have some post-truth with your democracy sausage!

It’s nearly the end of the year, which means it must be time to collect and review the various Word of the Year (WOTY) nominees and “winners” for 2016. I don’t make any pretense of objectivity: this run-down is thoroughly steeped in my opinions of the candidate words, with nothing scientifically justified. The only other note to make at the outset is that I’m only concerned with words put forth by organizations or specific individuals with a track record of credibility in observing, recording, or shaping the English language. If your Uncle Phil has picked his own WOTY for 2016, that’s nice, but I don’t care about it and I’m not going to cover it here (…sorry, Uncle Phil).

Let’s get started, shall we?

First, let me once again give special mention to the American Heritage Dictionary for staying out of this WOTY nonsense altogether. They continue to make the effort to do what dictionaries are supposed to do: document language. They don’t tell us what words we should flock to or declare which ones are the most important in pop culture. They deserve praise for not using the idea of a WOTY as a reason to issue press releases and promote their products.

AHD’s executive editor gave an interview a few weeks back to discuss some of the words they added in 2016, which is worth a listen. They’re a bit behind on the acceptance of singular they, though: that was the American Dialect Society’s WOTY choice last year. (We’ll learn the ADS’ 2016 choice on January 6th.) If you’re curious, AHD’s entry for “they contains one of the longest usage notes I’m aware of. It’s good stuff if you want to know some of the history, and ammunition if anyone tells you unequivocally that singular they is unacceptable.

Oxford Dictionaries this year, as in most years, made an odd choice. Usually their announcement gets a lot of attention. I don’t know if I’m an exception in this, but I hardly heard a peep this year. I blame that on the US Presidential Election, which pushed just about everything else out of the news on both sides of election day (and continues to do so).

Oxford’s selection was “post-truth,” an adjective they define as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” That barely begins to capture what this phrase means and how it’s used. Oxford hopes each year’s WOTY “captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the year just past. That applies well to post-truth. They note that the use of post-truth increased by over 2000% from 2015, which is data but not necessarily useful data. If no one uses the word “schmiezl” for a year but in the next it gets attention and sees a spike in use, it’s going to show a huge gain. That doesn’t mean it was the year of the schmiezl.

Post-truth had not even registered with me prior to Oxford’s selection of it and I’m not completely behind this one. The choice seems contrived, as if they went out of their way to find a word they could broadly apply to the politics of the past year, even if it wasn’t heavily used. And their mainstreaming of this term seems to go in the opposite direction of their intent. Elevating it doesn’t highlight or address the problem of post-truth: it normalizes it and trivializes it. Last year’s choice (a particular emoji: đŸ˜‚) was also squishy and uncertain. I wonder if we should worry about something deeper: are dictionaries and their definitive nature also post-truth? That conclusion might be implicit in Oxford’s selection and discussion of the term.

Oxford had several better candidates on their short list, with adulting and alt-right being the best. Both terms crossed my desk much more than post-truth, in many different contexts. As with post-truth, their proposed definition of alt-right is far too watered down. They also included a new popular definition of woke, showing that they might be more tuned into the culture than they sometimes get credit for. On the other hand…as with triggered and a host of other words from the recent past, woke quickly drifted into mostly ironic, sarcastic, and mocking use. It was already well established in that sense by the time Oxford published their short list.

Merriam-Webster kept it simple and chose surreal for 2016. That’s easily justified, especially since they base their decision on look-up numbers. Among their other good candidates were icon, irregardless, and the one I think would have been the best choice of the lot, deplorable.

Unfortunately, the ship sailed for surreal some time ago. Dictionary definitions still give the word some special qualities, but in popular use I almost always encounter it with the simple sense of “unusual.” It’s another sad case of a very useful word, which should be saved for the right moment, becoming watered-down through a combination of ignorance and overuse. I’ve been in more than one discussion in recent years where I’ve suggested that surreal should probably be avoided because it’s lost most of its punch. So long, surreal, you will be missed.

M-W makes an effort to explain the methodology of their selection, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something arbitrary about their choice. Their WOTY decisions have a basis in actual data, but it’s hard to be sure that’s the only thing being used to make the choice.

Dictionary.com selected xenophobia. They got Robert Reich to do a quick video on the word for them — Robert Reich! — which you should watch. I’ve recently been skimming a lot of Reich’s work on the modern American economy, especially regarding inequality over the past several decades. It doesn’t take him long to bring this into the discussion of xenophobia (around 1:55 in the video). I have been highly critical of dictionary.com in past years, but…watching Reich’s piece for them, I think they may have hit it out of the park for 2016.

Geoff Nunberg is not your Uncle Phil. In a brief, well-written justification of his personal choice of “normal” as 2016’s WOTY, he doesn’t pull any punches in expressing his opinions about some of the people and groups in the news last year, as well as the words used to describe them. It’s true: there is a whole basket of deplorables out there, and this year someone spilled it all over mainstream culture. I’ll be joining Nunberg in refusing to treat these people or the ideas they promote as normal.

I like to include nods to other parts of the English-speaking world in my WOTY round up, even if we’re not speaking quite the same language, so here they are:

Not to let Oxford suck all the air out of the room in the UK, the Collins Dictionary made its own selection. It was Brexit, a word which landed on just about every short list. For a UK-based source, that’s a good choice. It’s just that by the end of the year it had become so…boring. Their short list is more interesting, although about half of the nominees seem to have resurfaced from other lists last year. “Throw shade” took me by surprise when I saw it there, not because I think it’s a bad choice — it’s a great choice — but because it hadn’t made it onto any other list.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre chose “democracy sausage.” Which, it turns out, is an actual food item, and not the metaphor you might have expected. Those crazy Aussies. Read all about it here. Their short list is on the same page.

The other big dictionary out of Australia, Macquarie, is holding off until January 24th to reveal their selection. The public can vote for words from their short list. I’ll make an effort to post a follow-up next month.

The Canadians, perhaps because their country is officially bilingual, don’t choose a word of the year. Unless you count this humorous take on 2016, which is actually very hard to argue with. Ouch.

That pretty much does it for the WOTY round up…for now. In January, I’ll post a few words on the selections from the ADS, as well as Macquarie, and probably make some mention of of the banned words for 2017. In the meantime, enjoy your holidays, and resist xenophobia as you stay woke about the surreal nature of a potential post-truth presidency. As for me, I’m off in search of some democracy sausage (before it evolves into a metaphor that I won’t want to touch with a ten foot pole).


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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