Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Truth About The Word of the Year

It’s a good job I’m not a betting man. Earlier this year, I said that Brexit was a shoo-in to be named Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. Thankfully my fiver remained in my pocket rather than with my local bookmaker. The lexicographers of Oxford have announced instead that Post-Truth is its international word of 2016.

But I think they’ve got it wrong.

To me, a word of the year has to encapsulate the year just gone and also be a word that is actually being used on a regular basis. In terms of the former criterion, post-truth fits the brief. Given the crazy political climate we have just lived through, where the veracity of what we hear is open to question and elections are won and lost on the basis of at times spurious claims, the notion that we now live in a post-truth world is a very real one. Defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”, it clearly sums up the year we have all lived through.

But while we all recognise this and know it to be true, and while Oxford say that usage has gone up 2,000% in 2016, is it word that anybody ever hears anybody else actually say in daily conversation? Or is it a word of media commentary and online discourse, handy for summing up the zeitgeist and therefore one of the words which helps us to describe the year, but not indisputably the word which defines it.

Despite Donald Trump’s victory, I still maintain that Brexit is the word of 2016, a view which Collins Dictionaries recently endorsed. I think it has international connotations, as it is used as the touchstone by which other elections or movements are now judged. I’ve no idea how much usage has gone up, but I would wager (there I go again) that it is a great deal more than the 2,000% increase recorded by post-truth.

But crucially, it has become a word used by everybody this year and has become fully adopted into the English language better than any other recent word which comes to mind. It went from a slightly odd formation on the sidelines to becoming a fully fledged member of the English language, used and understood by everybody. For goodness sake, we even have a Brexit Minister now, that is how established the word has become. (Hopefully we will never be entering a Government that feels the need to appoint a Post-Truth Minister, but that is a blog for a different site). Its universal acceptance should have sealed the deal.

I do sometimes wonder whether the timing of the word of the year calendar affects Oxford Dictionaries slightly. Collins always goes first, and having bagged the obvious choice, I can only speculate on whether the Oxford powers that be felt that they couldn’t choose the same thing, so had to come up with something related but different. I can’t help feeling that they have plumped for the more academic and erudite choice as a way of marking themselves out, but have simply got it wrong this year.

I probably haven’t enhanced my already minimal chances of being invited to join the committee which decides these things in the future, but no matter. For me, Brexit is and always will be the defining word of 2016. And that is the whole truth.

Will The Whitelash Last?

One of the strangest things about the tumultuous political events of this year is that the reality of what it will all mean is still to come. 2016 is the year of Trump, the year of Brexit. But in some senses, it isn’t at all. The effects of the Trump presidency will not be fully felt until the start of 2017, the ramifications of Brexit will play out over a number of years. This is the year when the world changed – the next few years will tell us how much.

From a linguistic point of view, it is inevitable that new words and phrases will start to come into our language as the new realities take effect. One that has been around since last year is Trumpism, but interestingly it still feels a little like a word in search of a fully defined meaning. What is clear is that in the short-term, it will be used as the catch-all headline term for all policies and agendas set by the future US President, and a clear understanding of the values it represents will only really become apparent over the next few months.

A clearer word emerged in the immediate aftermath of the election. CNN commentator Van Jones felt that the result could partly be explained by a backlash of white people in the States against a black president, while the other issues of racism present in those working definitions of Trumpism also played their part. He termed the reaction a Whitelash, a word that has quickly caught hold and become of the key buzzwords that commentators the world over have used when describing the result.

It is understandable and tempting for people to hang on to words such as this as they seek to make sense of the week we have just witnessed. The reason this one seems to work is that it gets to the heart of one of the key issues of the election and brings to the fore issues of racism which are disturbing to many of us, making those ideas central to the overall result. I suspect that the term whitelash will be around in political comment for some time to come, especially with a round of volatile elections in Europe just around the corner.

On a lighter note, it was almost inevitable that UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would try to get in on the act. He has been reusing Gloomadon Poppers with almost monotonous regularity over the last few months, but this week tried for a new entry in the annals of words that nobody will ever use with ‘whinge-o-rama’, saying that the collective whinge-o-rama over the Trump victory had to stop. I wonder if there was a whinge-o-rama in the Johnson household when his bid to become Prime Minister became unstuck? There may well be one when he finds that yet another of his neologisms has disappeared without a trace.

Four years ago, I wrote a number of blog posts about Mitt Romney and his almost insatiable need to mangle the English language at any given opportunity. But this year’s election does not feel like a time to make jokes about the way words are used. I now need to keep track of the words and phrases used by the new administration to see how language is being modfied to exert influence and whether words are being coined or redefined to create danger in both subtle and unsubtle ways. The power of the spoken word and its ability to create great change and danger is now more real than it has been for a long time. The internet allows ideas to spread like wildfire. New words and meanings can take hold almost before we have realised. Rhetoric can have a profound effect that nobody expected. Tracking how these things evolve is now increasingly vital.