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Words of the Year: ‘Existential,’ anyone?

Fred Milller

Last week, Dictionary.com announced that “existential” is the Word of the Year (WOTY) for 2019.

(Darn. I had money on “conflate.”)

Criteria for the Dictionary.com WOTY requires millions of internet searches for the meaning of a word, but candidate words also say something about where people’s heads are. The word “existential” is being tossed around by both sides in the presidential impeachment debate. Coupled with the angst of the climate change crowd, personified in 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg and her pronouncement that humanity faces a 12-year doomsday deadline, “existential” seems a good choice.

(Skeptics theorize that coddled millennials have seized upon saving the earth as a way to give meaning to their lives since they have faced no real existential threat, but their feelings are valid, aren’t they?)

What seemingly clinched the choice of “existential” was a cute cartoon character: Forky the plastic spork, from the movie Toy Story 4, whose existential worries were a main element of the plot.

FOR A SOCIETY that is reading books less, (30 percent since 2004, U.S. Bureau of Labor), there certainly is a lot of interest in words, judging by the number of internet entities putting forth lists of words of the day, week, month, year, decade, even century. (No one has yet had the hubris to choose a Word of the Millennium.)

The Word of the 20th Century was announced in January 2000 by the American Dialect Society. In case you missed it (I did), it was “jazz,” beating out “progress” by a nose. The most recent Word of the Decade (2009) was “google,” a shoe-in.

As a person who made his living with words – and still uses words on a daily basis – I was interested to learn what other words of the year, words of the last 10 minutes or whatever, have been chosen by the lexicographers in charge of the English language. (Someone is in charge, isn’t he? Or she? Or they, to incorrectly use a gender-neutral plural pronoun for a singular person, as is the current vogue?)

THERE ARE NEW WORDS in recent years that have caught on, such as “emoji” (Oxford Dictionary WOTY 2015) and ones that have not, like “brony” (2011) an adjective applied to adult males who play with My Little Pony toys. Ick.

There are compound words to describe new behaviors, such as “binge-watch,” Collins English Dictionary WOTY in 2015. “Single-use” was the WOTY 2018 choice by Collins, which didn’t really make sense to me until I saw it applied to disposable plastic items such as soda straws. To label something as single-use is a dog whistle to the enviro mob.

“Fake news,” “deep state,” and “Brexit” are recent WTOY picks. Emerging from politics, they are often heard and widely understood. Not widely understood is Oxford Dictionary’s 2017 pick, “youthquake.” I’ve never heard it spoken and have never seen it in print. It references a major cultural shift originating from a new generation.

A NUMBER of new words tease shadings of meaning from the word “truth.” There’s “post-truth,” a 2016 Oxford WOTY to describe the trend of favoring beliefs and emotions over facts. While that word may be appropriate for doctoral theses, the popular culture (The Colbert Report) has given us the similarly defined “truthiness,” the 2005 WOTY choice by the American Dialect Society. Then there’s “least untruthful,” a 2016 WOTY winner attributed to James Clapper, former spy agency chief. That term might be acceptable in testimony to Congressional committees, but not, I think, to grand juries.

A favorite book of ours is Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words, a resource for playing a Balderdash type of word game. In her introduction, Mrs. Byrne characterized the English language as always moving forward, creating new words and leaving a slag heap of discarded words in its wake.

As for the word “existential,” I think it will survive, a hope I do not extend to Forky the spork. As a plastic eating utensil of marginal utility he is doomed to the landfill in the near term and probable banning as a single-use malefactor in the coming climate change youthquake. That’s no jazz, only truthiness.

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