“I believe we developed language because of our deep, inner need to complain.”– Lily Tomlin
Merriam-Webster’s Words of the Decade
What Do They Tell Us About These Last 10 Years… and What Does It Tell Us About Merriam-Webster?
One of the grammar and vocabulary blogs I read each day is posted by Merriam-Webster. It’s generally smart and serious. It’s not as much fun as the idiotic Dictionary.com, with that website’s social justice agenda, but it is reliable and sometimes insightful. At least that’s how I always felt until I read their recent pick for 2019’s “Word of the Year.”
Here’s how it works: Once a year, they select one word for the honor – a word that they consider to be “significant for that particular year because of the frequency with which it was looked up compared to previous years.” Putting aside perennial favorites like affectand effect, they look for one that has had multiple spikes in lookups in addition to being more frequently looked up overall.
So in 2019, their Word of the Year was – are you ready?
Right. They. The new word for “a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” According to the editors, lookups for theyhad been increasing so much over the last several years that they actually felt that it deserved the award. Here’s how they explained it: “When something so basic to a language as a personal pronoun takes on new meaning, the speakers of the language are going to notice – and they’re going to look to their dictionary for guidance.”
There are actually two theories about the role of dictionaries in defining words. One theory, the prescriptive theory, argues that words should be defined as they should be used by intelligent, educated speakers. The other theory, the descriptive theory, takes the position that what matters is whether the word is commonly used, not whether it improves or degrades the language.
Take your pick. In either case, the exercise is useful for prompting discussions about shifting cultural values.
To provide fuel for your future debates on the matter, here are the nine previous Merriam-Webster words of the year, along with some of the rationale for their choices…
“Economic recovery from the Great Recession was the big story at the beginning of this decade. (Indeed, the Word of the Year for 2008, in the immediate shock of the crisis, was bailout, so economic concerns even surpassed a presidential race in terms of public interest in vocabulary.)”
“The word pragmatic seemed to catch the spirit of the times in 2011, at least in politics, where Congress passed measures to control the federal budget and President Obama oversaw explanations and rollout of the recently passed Affordable Care Act.”
2012: socialism and capitalism
“During a presidential election year, it’s no surprise that terms from politics dominated the list in 2012. For the first and only time, we named two Words of the Year: socialism and capitalism. The two words showed such a close parallel rise in our statistics that it seems likely that many dictionary users looked them up sequentially in order to compare them.”
“ was a year without a single big story like a presidential election or economic recession, and yet this word’s rise in our data accompanied a national discussion about big issues like faith in science, climate change, and Mars exploration, as well as more focused stories like identifying the DNA of Richard III and assessing the role of Malcolm Gladwell’s successful books in popularizing scientific research.”
“Culture conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a ‘culture of transparency’ or ‘consumer culture.’ Culture can be either very broad (as in ‘western culture’ or ‘corporate culture’) or very specific (as in ‘postmodern culture’ or ‘Mexican culture’). It seemed that culture moved from the classroom syllabus to the conversation at large in 2014, appearing in headlines and analyses across a wide swath of topics.”
“In 2015, a group of 7 words all sharing the same suffix – -ism– were looked up with significant frequency, resulting in the choice of -ism itself as the Word for the Year. Socialism was the most looked up of the seven, as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ identification as a ‘democratic socialist’ kept the word in the national conversation. The other six -ism words so prominent in the public’s consciousness were fascism, racism, feminism, communism, capitalism, and terrorism.”
“The word surreal, defined as ‘marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream,’ was Merriam-Webster’s 2016 Word of the Year. Surreal is often looked up in moments of both tragedy and surprise, as people search for just the right word to bring order to abstract thoughts, emotions, or reactions. In 2016 lookups of the word followed the Brussels and Nice terror attacks, the Pulse shooting in Orlando, the coup attempt in Turkey, the Brexit vote, and the U.S. presidential election.”
“Feminism, defined in this dictionary as ‘the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes’ and ‘organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests,’ was the Word of the Year in 2017. Although feminism is frequently a top lookup, 2017 was a banner year for the word: from the Women’s Marches in January to the ongoing revelations that fueled the #MeToo movement, the word feminism was in the ether that year – and in the search bar of dictionary users.”
“The Word of the Year in 2018 was justice, a term at the center of many of our national debates that year – debates about racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. The question of just what exactly we mean when we use the word justice was part of the discussion. Particular technical uses of justice were also prominent, as references to the Justice Department (often referred to simply as ‘Justice’) were a constant in the news, and confirmation hearings for a new Supreme Court justice had the nation’s attention.”