If you had to choose a word that captured the mood of the past year, what would it be?
Several dictionaries have announced their picks for the Word of the Year 2018, and their selections provide a glimpse into the preoccupations of English-speakers.
Oxford Dictionaries chose toxic as the WOTY. It occurred most frequently in the literal toxic chemical, perhaps in response to the poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in March. But it also featured prominently in metaphorical phrases such as toxic masculinity, a cultural ideal of manliness that valorizes it as aggressive, competitive, hypersexual, and violent; and toxic environment, the poisonous atmosphere that can occur in workplaces when people perceive too much toxic masculinity in the air.
Oxford also released a shortlist including the wonderful cakeism. This refers to the idea that one can indeed have one’s cake and eat it, too, which was coined in Britain after a parliamentary aide was photographed with notes on the Brexit negotiations: “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it.” This is an unusual use of the suffix -ism, which more typically expresses characteristics of the word to which it is attached, as in “heroism,” “despotism,” or “Marxism.” Cakeism thus looks like it should refer to sugary deliciousness, not the blithe refusal to acknowledge difficult choices.
At Dictionary.com, the lexicographers chose misinformation, “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” Disinformation, in contrast, is deliberately misleading. Linguist-in-residence Jane Solomon explains that the choice of the seemingly milder mis- was meant to be a “call to action,” reminding us that we all contribute to the culture of “fake news” when we share things online without thinking.
Some dictionaries prefer to poll readers, and that’s how Cambridge Dictionary got nomophobia, “fear or worry at the idea of being without your mobile phone or unable to use it.” To me, the choice also reflects people’s fascination with portmanteaus (a blending of two separate words) – words like carcolepsy, falling asleep as soon as you get in the car, or destinesia, getting to where you wanted to go but forgetting why you went there in the first place.
If I had to pick a WOTY it would be yeet, a word I heard my teenage daughter utter daily. Yeet has rare flexibility. It can be an exclamation: “Yeet! You made cookies!” It can be a verb meaning to hurl something: “Yeet it in the trash” – or, by extension, to leave: “It’s 3:00; let’s yeet!” It can function as an adjective, too. It is almost never used without a little bit of irony, however, demonstrating an unusual ability to express both enthusiasm and teenage detachment.
Let’s hope 2019 is a yeet year!