Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Dec. 8, and updated Dec. 19 to reflect Merriam-Webster's official word of the year. Full update below.
“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”
Robin Williams spoke these words 27 years ago in the Academy Award winning film "Dead Poets Society." It’s strange to think that in 2014, the year Williams died, his name was the most-searched for phrase in Google. An awful lot has happened since then, and most of it has been quite awful.
is Quentin Tarantino directing 2016?— Matt Oswalt (@MattOswaltVA) July 8, 2016
Words really can change the world. But at the very least, they are markers by which we can help define it. Here's a look at the “woke” words that will always be unproudly remembered as so very 2016, in the hope that they might just stay put there as we head off into the “hygge” New Year.
Meaning: Prejudice against people from other countries.
Made Famous By: Like Justin Bieber, it’s hard to imagine a time where it wasn’t everywhere.
Last year, Dictionary.com announced that its Word of the Year was “identity.” In stark contrast, this year’s winner is “xenophobia.” On June 24, there was 938% increase in people searching for the term. In case you missed it, that was the day after the referendum on Brexit.
Hate crime increased by 41% in the month following the vote. But all over the world, there has been a sharp upward trend in discrimination against the “other.” Islamophobia is on the rise, provoked by what many view as globally inflammatory political rhetoric. From plans to register every Muslim in the US to Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster during the referendum campaign, it’s been a tough year for minority populations.
In 2013, the Word of the Year was "selfie." Now, more than ever, we ought to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Meaning: Nobody knows anymore.
Made Famous By: The British electorate.
What does Brexit mean? Does Brexit mean Brexit, or something else entirely? Technically, it’s supposed to reference Britain’s almost inevitable departure from the European Union. But the only thing we’ve been told so far is its publically endorsed colour scheme. Essentially, nobody really knows what’s happening. Especially Stan. Stan is very confused.
We have to stop saying Brexit, because Stan thinks we are saying biscuits. pic.twitter.com/CsTY2GGWWr— Katrina Burroughs (@Kat_Burroughs) June 27, 2016
The good news is that 2017 will be the year we finally find out what Brexit actually means. The bad news is that it’ll be a while until we see the back of it. In the meantime, we’ll always have this.
Meaning: Derogatory term used to describe politically correct liberals that can’t deal with ideas outside their safe space.
Made Famous By: The anti-political correctness brigade that can’t deal with ideas outside of its power-castle of inarguable man-facts.
A snowflake is supposedly something delicate. Also known as a “crybaby” or “luvvie,” they can be found getting emotional about things that are actually quite important. In their natural habitat, they might exhibit the following traits:
- Feeling empathy, even when inconvenient.
- Not laughing at racist jokes.
- Moved to protest politics they don’t agree with. Antonyms of “protest” include whining, whinging, and moaning.
Paradoxically, the term is often used to shut somebody up, while simultaneously advocating loudly for the protection of free speech. Go figure.
Meaning: A political philosophy that puts the nation, and often a certain race, ahead of the individual. It advocates a centralised government, led by an autocratic dictator that will aggressively repress any opposition.
Made Famous By:You Know Who.
So far in 2016, no word has been more searched in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary than “fascism.” This year, it appears that nationalism has somehow metamorphosed into populism, and people are intent on learning their history. That was, until, Merriam-Webster tweeted this.
'Fascism' is still our #1 lookup.— Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) November 29, 2016
# of lookups = how we choose our Word of the Year.
There's still time to look something else up.
Since then, people have been searching for words “puppies” and “flummadiddle” in an attempt to knock “fascism” off the top spot. Indeed, “puppy” ended up being the most searched for term on December 1. Will it help? Probably not, according to Merriam-Webster. It’s rigged!
**Update: Merriam-Webster revealed Dec. 19 that its word of the year is "surrealism." It was chosen as the word of the year "because it was looked up significantly more frequently by users in 2016 than it was in previous years, and because there were multiple occasions on which this word was the one clearly driving people to their dictionary."
Meaning: A self-created forum, usually in the digital world, where everybody agrees with and reinforces your ideas.
Made Famous By: Every political incident of 2016 that shocked you to the core.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, the election made no sense at all! Every time there’s a vote, the odds are on for nearly half of the country to wake up wondering what the heck happened. If you’ve never met a single Trump voter, Brexiteer, or vice versa, then you can probably blame the “echo chamber.” Or Netflix.
How do you get into an echo chamber? When you “like” something on Facebook, the site will automatically try and find similar things you’ll be interested in. After a while, you’ll be trapped playing in a colourful ball pit of ideas you’re already well acquainted with. By the time an election comes round, your news feed will look something like this. Remember when Sam Smith didn’t realize that racism was still a thing? Echo chamber. Don’t get stuck in a comfort zone. However much you disagree with it, it’s important to try and understand the other side. Otherwise everybody will be stuck in a “Venn diagram where the circles never touch”.
See also: The Bubble, a was reinforced by this sketch for SNL, which was perfect in every way.
Meaning: A state where objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Made Famous By: if I told you, would you believe me?
The Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year, use of the term has increased by 2,000% since last year. It’s often associated with late night tweeting, and fake Facebook news. In 2015, they picked an emoji crying with laughter. Keep the tears, take away the joy, and the similarities seem striking.
How many Bexiters does it take to change a light bulb?— Robin Michael (@rozzamichael) June 26, 2016
"I never said there was a light bulb"
See also: Facepalm (usable as either a noun or a verb).
We are all facepalm man pic.twitter.com/hkFVXMBTGr— Aisha S Gani (@aishagani) June 28, 2016
Meaning: some see it as a hip rebrand of white supremacy. Different face, same ideas.
Made Famous By:Breitbart.
The Los Angeles Times defined the alt-right movement as “a far-right ideology that promotes what many consider to be white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny.” Opposing multiculturalism and globalism, it has roots in the deep internet culture of 4chan and 8chan.
Words can be powerful, and the way movements and ideas are described is vital to how they are understood. The Associated Press has advised due diligence when reporting on the term, warning that it’s “currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology”. To clarify the situation, somebody even made a Google Chrome extension that automatically changed “alt-right” to “white supremacy” as you browsed the internet.
and that concludes our intensive three-week course pic.twitter.com/cCJp8sav7a— SUPREME COURT FAN (@petercbowden) November 16, 2016
If words truly can change the world, then there’s a responsibility to wield them with care. Too often in 2016 there have some who have spoken without thought, and, in the worst cases, with deliberate misintention. Respect for language in its fiercest form is the first step toward reunifying societies that seem heavily divided. Words spoken with fire breed action that can burn.
Is the “alt-right” simply a sanitized label for white supremacy? Is “post-truth” only a thing because so little care was given to the substance of what has been said on some of the world’s most important issues? Isn’t the “echo chamber” just a product of linguistic laziness, where words and ideas are not challenged with sufficient criticism? The words that defined 2016 did so because people stopped worrying about the meteoric impact they could have on society. Words can change the world, and in 2017, it’s crucial that we make sure they change it for the better. There’s not time for a mic drop. There’s too much work to do.