Let’s start with a core assumption: The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is bullshit. The word — Word — is obtained through no particular scientific or social analysis. It is not the word that is spoken most often (even Oxford Dictionaries admits that result would be very boring), or the word that is most important. The methodology consists of running vast amounts of words from books/newspapers/blogs/transcripts through “sophisticated software” and then turning the results over to “expert lexicographers,” which is to say that a bunch of dictionary makers do pretty much as they please. Big Dictionary’s motivations here are deeply suspect, after all: In an era when no one outside of AP Spanish buys dictionaries, the most a humble dictionary company can hope for is making a splash and luring some kids to its website in the hope that they bookmark it and return later. The Word of the Year is not, in short, a good metric of much: not of you, not of your last 12 months of English-speaking, and certainly not of the state of the lingua franca.
But the Word of the Year and its corresponding list of finalists have a certain zeitgeisty ability to capture what was going on in a given year. And let me tell you, 2016 was a flaming pile of shit.
On Wednesday, Oxford Dictionaries christened “post-truth,” an adjective 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,” its Word of the Year. The other finalists were:
- adulting, n. [mass noun] informal the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks
- alt-right, n. (in the U.S.) an ideological grouping associated with extreme conservative or reactionary viewpoints, characterized by a rejection of mainstream politics and by the use of online media to disseminate deliberately controversial content
- Brexiteer, n. British informal a person who is in favour of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the European Union
- chatbot, n. a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet
- coulrophobia, n. [mass noun] rare extreme or irrational fear of clowns
- glass cliff, n. used with reference to a situation in which a woman or member of a minority group ascends to a leadership position in challenging circumstances where the risk of failure is high
- hygge, n. [mass noun] a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture)
- Latinx, n. (plural Latinxs or same) and adj. a person of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina); relating to people of Latin American origin or descent (used as a gender-neutral or non-binary alternative to Latino or Latina)
- woke, adj. (woker, wokest) U.S. informal alert to injustice in society, especially racism
There’s a famous scene in The Bonfire of the Vanities in which one of the novel’s many reprehensible drunks awakens with a hangover that is, as bad hangovers are, at once all-consuming and totally banal. Author Tom Wolfe describes the character’s head as feeling like the inside of an egg, a sac of goo rolling back and forth and threatening to be punctured — fatally, perhaps — by the ear-splitting realities of consciousness. This is what revisiting this year’s debates over fact-checking and fake news and weaponized exaggeration feels like, so — sorry; you can make the bill out to Oxford Dictionaries, which with this year’s Word of the Year has gleefully gone fishing in the muck and reeled in a permanent reminder of our descent into The Land of Gray Areas.
Let’s take a step back. Imagine you’re a Martian. You and a bunch of your buddies have just landed your space pods on Earth and a redhead has managed to badger and semaphore you into awareness of (a) Earthlings and (b) their language. And then, using your newfound grasp of communication, you consult the authorities and peer into the most important words of the planet’s current orbit around the sun. Here is the only conclusion: The people are lying, responsibility-shirking, dogmatic, sexist, lonely, overly self-aware clown freaks. (Who, to be fair, have a laudably fluid understanding of gender.) What do you do then?
You blow up Earth. Not because you’re mad at it, and not because it did you any wrong — because it is terrible and should be put out of its own misery. We’re at the million-voices-crying-out-in-terror phase, just before, hopefully, the silence. Next to the entry for coulrophobia — “extreme or irrational fear of clowns” — Oxford Dictionaries appended the designation rare. That’s where we are: Our all-consuming fears are at once rare — bizarre, unusual, completely goddamn unlikely — and common enough to make it onto a Word of the Year list. Welcome to 2016: Nothing makes sense and everything is bad.
As for the Word of the Year — Oxford Dictionaries, buddy, pal, friend … you can’t just add post- to the start of a word and announce that it’s another word. That’s just not how this works.