This post marks my eighth annual foray into word-of-the-year (WOTY) speculation. My first such summing-up, in 2009, included birther, Tea Party, and FAIL, among other lexical units. How things have changed. Or not.
As in the past, my choices for 2016 follow the guidelines of the American Dialect Society, which will choose its own WOTYs on January 6, 2017, at its annual meeting in Austin, Texas. (If you happen to be in the vicinity, the vote is open to the public, and it’s hella fun.) There are a few new ADS categories this year – political word of the year, digital (tech-related) word of the year, slang word of the year, WTF word of the year – and there’s always the possibility of even more categories being nominated from the floor. (For my own list, I’ve created three new categories: Obscenity of the Year, Import of the Year, and Spoonerism of the Year.) Nominated words don’t have to be brand new, but they do need to “show widespread usage by a large number of people in a variety of contexts and situations, and which reflect important events, people, places, ideas, or preoccupations of English-speakers in North America in 2016.”
The Fritinancy list, in alphabetical order:
Algorithm. My nomination for digital word of the year. Algorithm is an old word – it entered English in the 1690s, and originally meant “Arabic system of computation” – but until recently it was confined mostly to tech jargon. This year, thanks to the proliferation of fake news (see below), the general public learned that Facebook uses an algorithm – a set of automated rules – to determine who sees which stories. (Read Cathy O’Neill, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, on the danger Facebook’s algorithm poses to democracy.) Algorithm was derived from the name of a ninth-century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. Digital word of the year runner-up: Flattie, a retronym for “non-virtual-reality film.”
Alt-right. Euphemism of the year. Derived from alternative and right, this label may seem as innocuous as alt-country or alt-classical. In fact, it’s a cover for a range of extremist tenets, including white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. The Associated Press, whose stylebook is followed by many U.S. newspapers, in late November issued usage guidelines for the term: surround it with quotation marks or modify it with “self-described.” Mother Jones magazine had some suggestions of its own.
Bad hombre/nasty woman. Phrases used by candidate Trump during the final presidential debate on October 19; the first referred to illegal immigrants, the second to Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. The phrases were instantly applied to merchandise (T-shirts, mugs) and memes.
Bigly. Overall word of the year. Language Log devoted four posts to this word, which was what a lot of people heard when presidential candidate Donald Trump used big-league as an idiosyncratic modifier, or post-verbal adjunct. (Here’s the most recent post, with links to the others.) Bigly is a genuine word, dating back to 1400, and many people still insist it’s what Trump said. (Maybe their persistence is related in some way to the fad for company and product names ending in -ly. I’ve collected 288 -ly names in a Pinterest board.) Bigly summed up much of the horror show that was 2016: the huge Trump rallies, the enormous sums of money raised and spent, and, most of all, the limitless tendency of people to hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. For more on bigly, see Allan Metcalf’s post in Lingua Franca; like me, Metcalf chose bigly as his word of the year.
Deplorables. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark, at an LGBT for Hillary event in September, quickly caught fire – and backfired, when Trump supporters gleefully appropriated it.
Elite. Noun and adjective; used to disparage anyone you deem to be out of touch or (in old-timey parlance) too big for their britches. Read my post on elite.
Emolument. An obscure Latinate word that originally meant “a miller’s fee for grinding grain”; suddenly thrust into popular discourse because of the president-elect’s multiple conflicts of interest, which would appear to violate the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. That clause “bars U.S. officials, including the president, from receiving payments from foreign governments or foreign government entities unless the payments are specifically approved by Congress.’ (Source: ProPublica.)
Fake news. Most likely to succeed, unfortunately. Read my post on fake.
Lügenpresse. Import of the year; also a WTF word. It means “lying press,” and it was originally used in Nazi Germany. This year it was revived, in the original German, by pro-Trump members of the self-described “alt-right.” The sentiment, if not the word itself, was common among Trump supporters, who frequently booed and cursed members of the media who were covering Trump events. Trump himself encouraged the behavior by repeatedly calling the news media “dishonest.”
Normalization. The process “through which wisdom becomes conventional and utopian ideals slam against questions of feasibility,” especially after the Overton window has been smashed. Read my post on normalization.
Overton window. Most useful word of the year. The range of ideas the public will accept. This year, that range expanded to accommodate racism, sexual predation, torture advocacy, blatant lying, the mocking of a disabled person, and loud public use of profanity – all from a single presidential candidate. Read my post on Overton window.
Pussy. WTF word of the year. It was the context that made it WTF: The word – used here to mean “a weak or effeminate man” – was repeated by Donald Trump in a New Hampshire rally in February after an audience member shouted it to describe one of Trump’s rivals, Senator Ted Cruz. Far from tut-tutting it, Trump later boasted that his use of pussy was one of the reasons he won the New Hampshire primary. (Runner-up: Vagenda of Manocide.)
Via Crooks and Liars.
Shitposting. My pick for Obscenity of the Year (in every sense). Defined as “the act of posting "content of aggressively, ironically, and trollishly poor quality,” the term first appeared in 2007 but spiked in 2016 when a Silicon Valley multimillionaire bragged about shitposting scurrilous falsehoods about Hillary Clinton. Runner-up: Assclown.
Squirmish. Most creative word of the year. Coined in January by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in a speech endorsing Donald Trump; the word seems to be a blend of squirm and skirmish, with perhaps a touch of squeamish. Read my post about squirmish. Runner-up: Y’all Qaeda, a disparaging term for the armed protesters who commandeered the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Seven members of the group were arrested after 41 days of occupation; in October, a federal court jury acquitted all of them.
Tuck Frump. Spoonerism of the year.
Weaponize. Originally a bit of military jargon, weaponize spread to a lot of other targets in 2016. Writing for Lexicon Valley, John Kelly listed some of them: “women, architecture, black suffering, anthropology, the facts, texting, femininity, marketing, secularism, religion, ideology, traditional forms of dress, virtue, sadness, social constructions, iWatches, and fictional experiences in video games.” Also social media and butter. The meaning behind all of these usages: “to turn something into a powerful advantage.”
Woke. Slang word of the year. From African-American vernacular, it originally it meant simply “awake,” but has been “easing into the mainstream,” as Merriam-Webster put it earlier this year, with a new meaning: “socially aware.” It gained currency after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, which has a recruitment website called StayWoke.org. Appropriated by white people – as so much of black culture has been – woke was “defanged of its political connotations,” wrote Amanda Hess in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in April; she notes that in January, MTV named woke as “a trendy new slice of teen slang” meaning, simply, “plugged in.” Runner-up slang word of the year: kayfabe.
Zika. The mosquito-borne, sexually transmissible Zika virus caused severe birth defects and was declared a worldwide public health emergency in February by the World Health Organization. By mid-August, the epidemic had spread from Brazil through Central America and the Caribbean and into several neighborhoods around Miami, Florida. The outbreak was so serious that Pope Francis suggested, in February, that avoiding pregnancy was not “an absolute evil” for people exposed to the disease.
Bonus! My nomination for sentence of the year is a classic bit of clickbait that seems to sum up the what-fresh-hell-is-this quality that jolted us every day of 2016:
“You Won’t Believe What Happens Next!”
Related: My names of the year for 2016.
Previous WOTY lists:
2015 (refugee, Mx., ghosting, and more)
2014 (Ebola, precariat, budtender, and more)
2013 (Obamacare, binge-watching, selfie, and more)
2012 (fiscal cliff, stockist, unskew, and more)
2011 (Arab spring, curate, planking, and more)
2010 (cannabiz, hashtag, vuvuzela, and more)
2009 (app, death panel, zombie, and more)