Dictionaries announced their words of the year (WOTY) for 2019, and I am here for it, as my Gen Z daughter would say. I love reading about the most frequently looked-up words, and the ones chosen by lexicographers “to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year,” as Oxford Dictionaries puts it. This year, dictionaries were starkly divided in their interpretation of 2019.
The mood at Oxford Dictionaries seems to have been full-on apocalyptic. Its 2019 WOTY is climate emergency, a “rebranding” that makes sense. Climate change seems slow and natural, like the seasons, and global warming might sound nice, but a climate emergency is a disaster that requires immediate attention. Oxford’s shortlist is equally alarming, featuring climate crisis, extinction, and two words I’d never heard before: eco-anxiety and ecocide. Eco-anxiety is self-explanatory, while ecocide means “destruction of the natural environment by deliberate or negligent human action.” Interest in the latter spiked last year due to a campaign to make it a crime, like genocide, under international law.
Cambridge Dictionary also focused on the environment, but took a more positive view. Its WOTY is upcycling, “the activity of making new furniture, objects, etc. out of old or used things or waste material.” Compostable, preservation, and carbon sink, an area of forest that traps carbon dioxide, also made it onto its shortlist. Upcycling won, the editors explain, because it is a small, “concrete action a single human being can take to make a difference.”
Merriam-Webster’s list includes some of the most common English words and some of the rarest. Its editors picked they as the WOTY, but not as it is typically used, as the third-person plural pronoun. They chose to highlight its growing use as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. This is welcome news for those who do not identify as either male or female.
The No. 1 most common English word – the – appears on Merriam-Webster’s shortlist because searches for it spiked 500% after The Ohio State University tried and failed to trademark the word. Tergiversation was also shortlisted, as searches for it skyrocketed when columnist George Will referred to Lindsey Graham’s “tergiversations” in The Washington Post. According to Merriam-Webster, the word has two related meanings: “evasion of straightforward action or clear-cut statement” and “desertion of a cause, position, party, or faith.”
What all the 2019 WOTY winners have in common is that they are responding to the concerns of Gen Z and others who believe we are indeed experiencing a climate emergency, and that individuals should be free to identify themselves how they wish.