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Weird Words of the Year to wonder about

Every year, the world’s leading dictionaries add new words. It’s quite the tradition. We’ve been inventing new words since we were grunting at each other. We still grunt at each other, but we also talk at and to each other now, so the Word of the Year reflects the times we live in and the constantly evolving nature of communication.

For 2022, five different dictionaries, five different words. Commonality: most of them arose from the pervasive negativity that seems to grip our communal mindset in this post-pandemic period.

Leading off is goblin mode from the folks at Oxford English Dictionary. This isn’t a new word having first emerged in 2009 on Twitter – the most goblinesque of social media – but has reached new heights because of Covid-changed behaviours. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this term as “a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations,” which pretty much sums up how we all felt when the lockdown hammer first fell in March of 2020, but haven’t we grown past that? Aren’t we leaving our couches and shedding our ‘who cares, I can do whatever I want because nothing matters’ mindset? I hope the folks at Oxford English Dictionary are just showing their cynical British side, and they don’t really think this is the pervasive attitude three years out from those dark days. Sure, there are still some goblins out there trolling social media but not enough to take the zeitgeist hostage and earn goblin mode Word of the Year status.

Next is another less-than-happy way of thinking from Merriam-Webster: gaslighting. Considering that gaslighting became a political tool when the Trump campaign swung into high gear in 2015, it’s surprising that it has taken this long to work its way through the ethos and into the lofty position as a Word of the Year. I guess that just shows how the term gas light, popularized by two movies (1940 and ’44) and a play (1938) of the same name, has reached saturation with misdirection and misinformation having been weaponized by the far right.

The topper of negativity among words of the year is permacrisis, from the folks at Collins. The world has faced so many ‘unprecedented’ crises from world wars to mass famines to genocides to hellish weather events that it seems to be saying 2022 was a year of permacrisis and could be construed as assumptive. Yes, we seem to be bouncing from one awful thing to the next but is it any worse than previous years, decades or centuries? Is the current conflict in Ukraine worse than the one in Korea in the 1950s? Probably not in the opinion of the folks most directly affected. Or does this most recent set of crises seem permanent because we hear about each catastrophe so immediately and on a news loop that never stops?

One of the Words of the Year points out how seriously people take their entertainment: homer. It was chosen as by Cambridge Dictionary following a kerfuffle emerging from some Brits’ dedication to Wordle. I guess this unfamiliar word – in Britain – caused Wordle enthusiasts to lose their winning streak as well as their minds to such an extent they took to social media in droves to express extreme consternation.

Finally, Dictionary.com chose woman as their Word of the Year based on how many times that word was searched. Though this seems odd, they explain that it was because people were clarifying the seemingly straightforward word in terms of gender identification and the transgender movement. I find this ironic in the year that women lost their most basic human rights to determine their own health and life direction in many states.

As a year, 2022 was the usual mixed bag of tragedies and triumphs for most, but I saw so many posts at the end of it saying, ‘good riddance’ and other less circumspect ways of expressing anxiousness to get it in the rear-view mirror. Many of us had the best year we’d experienced since the pandemic hammer fell. We realize that we need to learn to live with Covid as we have the flu, colds and other constant health threats. Others felt that since we aren’t out of the woods with the virus yet, and since we’re feeling economic and social blowback that 2022 wasn’t a success on balance. I think those folks had the bigger voices when choosing the words of the year, which – you must admit – are all pretty negative and/or mirror society in negative ways.

It’s not always that way though. Even as we navigated the pandemic, words of the year highlighted some of the aspects of our better natures. ‘Vax’ (Oxford Dictionary) and ‘vaccine’ were chosen by the Miriam-Webster Dictionary as their choices as the best descriptors for 2021. In 2021, every conversation seemed to revolve around or at least touch on a discussion of how one’s vax status affected life. Social media is still rife with pro- and anti-vaxers shouting about the correctness of his/her stance on vaccinations.

Inquiring about someone’s vax status was also a topic of discussion. We wondered if it was ok when asking folks over for drinks to ask about their status so others are comfortable. Or is a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ plan better? The word vaccine itself wasn’t new but referring to it as being ‘vaxed’ or getting a ‘jab’ or being ‘boostered’ was the norm.

Vaccinations have been around for centuries, according to the Immunisation Advisory Centre (immune.org.nz). Edward Jenner is considered the founder of vaccinology in the West in 1796, after he inoculated a 13-year-old boy with the vaccinia virus (cowpox) and demonstrated immunity to smallpox. Receiving vaccines from early childhood has always been no big deal. Parents take babies, toddlers and young children to the family doctor to ‘get their needle.’ Older kids and teens get updates of these, and as adults, we are smart if we get tetanus, Hepatitis and other shots to ensure we don’t become ill. Some have chosen to not have their children vaccinated and must file proper exemption paperwork, but the vast majority choose to protect their little ones from previously dreaded diseases. In recent years, enough parents had their offspring duck the measles vaccine that there have been outbreaks around the globe. That seems to be a pretty clear case of cause and result.

COVID vaccines have lit up the media and caused a rift in society like no other medical treatment in memory. Whereas most vaccinations were heralded as a societal godsend, COVID vaccines have been both lauded and derided. Many looked to their development and distribution as a turning point in getting back to normal, while a small – but very vocal – number refuse the vaccines for themselves and their children, and they also aren’t shy about telling others – over any medium possible – that the vaccines are dangerous, saying that “long-term effects aren’t known.”

The vaccinated majority turned toward the unvaccinated asking why the hospitals were full and why many areas of modern life were again denied to them, like dining out, going to events and socializing with friends. These divisive terms were chosen as Words of the Year for good reason.

Taking another approach, in 2021 Dictionary.com named ‘allyship’ as its choice. This is a term that isn’t new as a concept but has come into popular use only lately. Being considered an ally of marginalized groups of people has gained importance with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I remember it coming to wider use a few years ago on social media with a meme that said, “I’m not gay but am a proud ally.” It really hit close to home as my gay cousin had recently committed suicide. Allyship seemed like a great word to spotlight during another difficult year.

Likewise, Cambridge Dictionary came to the table with a lift-up term to highlight for 2021: perseverance. Since we had survived the second and were rounding the bend toward the third year of the pandemic, perseverance was a great thing to strive toward. If we ceased our bitching and whining while moving toward thriving instead of just surviving would that be our pledge for 2022? Will we persevere through a multi-year global traumatic event as our grandparents and great-grandparents did with First World War, Second World War, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu etc.?

Reviewing past words of the year reveals much about society’s mindset of the time and reactions to other world events and trends.

Pandemic was, not surprisingly, the Word of the Year for 2020, according to the folks at Merriam-Webster. Its cousins COVID (not really a word but an acronym) and virus are right up there, too.

Climate emergency was Oxford’s choice in 2019, while the pronoun they was designated by Merriam-Webster. We’ve gotten used to using what used to always be a plural pronoun with a singular verb. It was a tough switch for some of us, but respectful use of language is imperative.

In 2018, Oxford deemed the word toxic its choice and justice was decided on by the folks at Merriam-Webster. As you can see there was a lot of ‘Trump-ing’ going on that year, with the Mueller report, general justice and social justice atrocities, as well as the spreading of toxicity via Twitter.

2017 ‘hey Boomered’ us with youthquake as its choice by the thought leaders at Oxford, while feminism led the charge at Merriam-Webster. The latter was spurred on by pink pussy hats, the women’s march on Washington and general disgust with being grabbed by the nether regions – collectively, if not individually.

We begged for “just the facts, ma’am” in 2016, as evidenced by Oxford’s choice for Word of the Year as post-truth following the rollicking election earlier that year. So, it seems fitting that Merriam-Webster’s choice was the word surreal, which turned out to be just the beginning of the next often surreal four years of news coverage.

Oxford Dictionary forgot that it is an arbiter of words and decided an emoji – the happy face/teary eye one to be exact – would wear the Word of the Year crown in 2015. Over at Merriam-Webster they also couldn’t find a worthy word to recognize, so they decided that ism (the suffix) was their choice. Perhaps this reflects society’s growing sensitivity and willingness to be offended at the drop of a hat. Or maybe it was a legitimate reaction to the growing awareness of ageism, sexism, and racism. Maybe ‘ist’ would also be a good choice, with words like elitist coming to mind.

You may remember hearing in the news that selfie was named Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2013 and vape in 2014 and thereby officially added to their lofty tome.

If you are a Simpsons fan, you have seen Lisa the Iconoclast, episode 144, aired in 1996, about Lisa exposing the founder of Springfield as a murderous pirate. It marked the debut of the word ‘cromulent,’ coined by David X. Cohen, a writer from the Simpsons who satisfied the producers’ unusual request to make up one of two words that sound like real words. The other one being ‘embiggens.’ Neither one is in the Oxford English Dictionary despite the latter word being first used in 1884 for C.A. Ward and then again by Dan Greaney. It also appears in several scientific publications. Making up words is something that trendsetters do, whether it’s the Simpsons, Shakespeare, or Steve Jobs or just generated spontaneously within the hivemind of the techno-sphere.Don’t be afraid to define and market your business with made-up words. Go ahead and make your mark on the English language and define your place within our culture. Your new words might even be in the dictionary someday.

Do you have a word you think deserves special recognition this year? Is it the word that deserves to take home the big prize of Word of the Year?

I would love to hear your thoughts and words. Hit me up at jill@writeoncommunicationservices.com.

A word nerd and digital nomad, Jill Ellis-Worthington uses words to bring business to your business at Write.On Communication Services. Check her out at www.writeoncommunicationservices.com