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.