Busy Buzzwords

Our local news wraps its nightly broadcast by pushing little surveys you can take online. Earlier this week was, “Should the U.S. Senate vote to increase stimulus checks to $2,000?” (88% said yes). The night before, “What was your favorite holiday food this year?” (pie narrowly edged ham). What I find laughable is the participation rate – maybe 25 responses on average – yet the results are announced the following night like headline news.  25 is a minuscule sampling for a basis, like surveying a few of your neighbors and calling it good.  Yet other companies take the exact same approach.  Example: Merriam-Webster just announced its 2020 “Word of the Year”.

Merriam-Webster’s fitting “Word of the Year”

You’ll find almost 200,000 words in the English language (with more added every year).  Should pandemic take the trophy for 2020?  Well, yes, it’s hard to argue with Merriam on that one.  Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic dominate headlines and conversations, the word created the single largest spike in dictionary traffic.  On March 11th, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the lookup of pandemic increased over 100,000% over 2019.  I can’t convert 100,000% to a quantity but I know it’s a big number.

Merriam isn’t content with just “word of the year”, however.  They also list the top ten words according to increased dictionary traffic over the previous year.  Accordingly, 2020 self-branded with coronavirus, quarantine, and asymptomatic.  I wouldn’t think any of these words – pandemic included – induces peace of mind, but in dire situations our brains have a relentless need to know more.

With the mental fatigue brought on by too much COVID talk, perhaps you’ll find Merriam’s other top-ten words more refreshing.  Antebellum made the list because the long-popular country music trio Lady Antebellum changed its name to “Lady A”; also because the movie “Antebellum” was released in September.  Mamba was a top-ten for the passing of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his nickname in reference to his killer play.  Kraken is the newest franchise in the National Hockey League, the mascot a mythological Scandinavian sea monster.

Seattle-ites will learn to chant, “GO KRAKEN!”

But none of these are my favorite.  How about #7, schadenfreudeSHAH-dun-froy-duh means “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others”.  In March, schadenfreude pointed to the college admissions scandal, particularly the outing of the guilty A-list celebrities.  Schadenfreude also colored the daily coverage of President Trump by the so-called “fake news media”.

For the record, schadenfreude is German (of course it is) so let’s give it bonus points for sneaking onto a top-ten list of English words.

You may not agree with Merriam-Webster but at least its choices are based on real data – lookups that imply support from the masses.  Other organizations are much vaguer with their selection criteria.  Consider Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”.  Time’s stated criteria is, “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year.”  By that definition it should come as no surprise to see Adolf Hitler selected in 1938, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, and Mark Zuckerberg in 2010.  However, you’ll also find almost every U.S. President on the list, as if simply inhabiting the Oval Office makes you more influential than all other persons.  President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are 2020’s “Person of the Year”.  Uh, shouldn’t we at least get them inaugurated before evaluating influence?

Deserving of more “Timely” recognition…

[Note: Time’s “Person of the Year” recognition owes a debt to aviator Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first solo transatlantic flight in May of 1927.  The magazine overlooked Lindbergh’s accomplishment by never featuring him on its cover.  To make up for it, Lindbergh became Time’s inaugural “Person of the Year”.  Makes you wonder if someone else was more deserving in 1927, doesn’t it?]

One more “of-the-year” example for you.  Pantone, the “color company” best known for its Pantone Matching System (or PMS, a rather unfortunate acronym), chooses a color of the year to put the last twelve months in review.  For 2020?  Like Time Magazine, Pantone broke its own rules and went with two choices: Ultimate Gray, which suggests solid shadows cast on a wall; and Illuminating, a lemony shade hinting at “the light at the end of the tunnel”.  Illuminating might be a little premature for 2020.  Let’s go glass-half-full and call it next year’s color instead.

Is this light “Illuminating” to you?

If Merriam-Webster could choose its busy buzzwords in hindsight, 2020’s winner might not be pandemic but rather, malarkeyMalarkey came in at #11 in the top ten (come again?) because it’s a favorite of President-elect Biden.  Rather than saying, “C’mon man, you’re making that up.” (okay, he says that too) Biden prefers, “Give me a break; that’s a bunch of malarkey”.

“Malarkey” my words; you’re gonna hear the Biden favorite a lot over the next four years.

Some content sourced from The Cut article, “Pantone’s Color of the Year is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’”, Merriam-Webster.com, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

The Final Word

This time of year, we assemble our latest collection of “best-of’s” and “…of-the-year’s”.  On Monday, America crowned its national champion in college football (Alabama). In a few weeks we’ll get the NFL’s equivalent in the Super Bowl. Last month several magazines recognized 2017 of-the-year’s in photography and current events. Soon we’ll also have best-of’s in music (Grammy) and film (Oscar). In this spirit, did you know there’s an of-the-year for words?

To be clear, “word-of-the-year” doesn’t refer to the annual expansion of the Merriam-Webster (.com) Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionaries Online. With the former, over 250 words were added last fall; with the latter, over a thousand.  Instead, word-of-the-year is a single choice, representing “lasting potential as a word of cultural significance”.  That’s how the people at Oxford see it, and thus this year’s honoree is “youthquake”.  Huh?  Maybe if you’re in Britain you’re not shaking your head like me.  “Youthquake” means “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”  “Youthquake” has been around since 1965, but back then it was only a reference to the fashion and music industries.  Today, it could (and is) being used in reference to the myriad demonstrations of change commanded by the millennial generation.

With the Academy Awards – should you not agree with, “and the winner is…” – at least you might have a favorite in the list of nominees.  But the short list for 2017’s word-of-the-year is the following bunch of odd ducks: white fragility, unicorn, kompromat, broflake, newsjacking, gorpeore, milkshare duck, and antifa.  Okay, maybe “antifa” would’ve been a good choice, but I count at least four others I’m seeing for the first time.  More to the point, what happened to better choices like “hipster” or “pregame” or “alt-right”?  Did none of those even make it into the dictionary expansion?  They’re certainly more word-of-mouth than “youthquake”.

Perhaps “youthquake” will make it across the pond in the next year or two and enter America’s daily conversations.  But the word is not off to a good start, considering several in Britain – including the CEO of a youth leadership organization – claim they’ve never heard of it.  Maybe Oxford just has an affection for the word, so they throw it out there as an “of-the-year”.  But that’s kind of like being labeled “America’s Best City To Live In”.  The mere advertisement draws a bunch of tourists and other undesirables and next thing you know you’re no longer “best”.  By the time we Americans get right with “youthquake”, Oxford and Britain will have moved on to 2018’s word-of-the-year.

Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski claims their word-of-the-year (apparently the honor is shared) “…gives us insight into the collective curiosity of the public”. M-W took a more scientific approach to it’s recipient, looking at how often certain words were looked up online, and their context with respect to current events.  M-W’s 2017 word-of-the-year?  Feminism.  Look-ups of “feminism” increased 70% over 2016, and spikes in that activity were tied to comments made by politicians in Washington D.C., “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Wonder Woman”, and the sexual harassment revelations of the past several months.  M-W gives “feminism” two definitions, but I prefer the second: “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

Two years ago, Oxford made a particularly clever word-of-the-year choice in “pictograph”.  Rather than show the word, Oxford showed an emoji.  If my spell-check is any indication, it takes at least two years to embrace the current word-of-the-year recipient.  “Emoji” did not underline.  “Youthquake” most definitely did.