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Commentary: A Toxic 2018

David Martin Davies


The end of the year means a look at the word of the year from a variety of dictionaries. 

The top word, presumably, is a metonym for our collective experience of the year’s events.   


Among the dictionaries that publish these lists is the Oxford English Dictionary. The British publisher’s word of the year for 2018 for both the U.K. and the U.S. is “toxic.” Data reveals a 45 percent increase in the number of times people have looked up the word on its website.

In a video released by Oxford Dictionaries on Twitter, it offered that “more than ever” the word “toxic” is being used to “describe a vast array of situations, concerns, and events.”

Let’s consider what’s toxic: the things we eat (beef, poultry, and romaine lettuce among recently recalled items), the places we live (smog-filled atmospheres and polluted waters), the people with whom we interact (in our relationships, work places, schools and on social media), and in our systems and institutions (sports, the literary arts, Hollywood, the courts, the press and the White House).  

According to the FAQs on their website, the Oxford word of the year “is a word or expression that we can see has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months.”  It adds that after debate and careful consideration, words are selected based on how they “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.”

That doesn’t sound too scientific, but judges ultimately choose the word based on evidence from an “extensive language research program, including the Oxford Corpus, which gathers 150 million words of current English from web-based publications each month.” 

From there, software helps lexicographers identify “new and emerging words and examine the shifts in how established words are being used.” Dictionary editors “flag notable words” and use “other sources of data,” including suggestions made in comments on the dictionary’s social media.

It is a figurative finger on the pulse of society to name what has gone on over the last 12 months. And other dictionaries file suit and list their own words of the year after this kind of deliberation and data-mining of their own.

A quick scan of past words of the year reveals something else. A decade ago, the word of the year was “hypermiling,” which denotes the collection of driving techniques that improve a car’s fuel efficiency. In 2007, the word was “locavore,” a person whose diet consists of locally grown or produced food.  The year before that, in 2006, the term that reflected our preoccupation was “carbon neutral,” a process of canceling out a carbon footprint.  That first decade of the early aughts shows a concerned consumer proactively seeking ways to improve the planet.

In contrast, in those same years, Merriam-Webster offered a series of quotidian terms that don’t seem particularly loaded or reflective of a concerted effort or goal though they are no doubt word of the year selections because of a surge in search engine spikes. Something in our collective experience brought about the need to learn more about these words, associated with larger events.  

For instance, from 2009 to 2014, the words were “admonish,” “austerity,” “pragmatic,” “socialism” tied with “capitalism” (perhaps comparative searches going on that year), “science,” and “culture.” These are big words; weighty words. However, the words are not ostensibly contentious ones and, paradoxically, these were also simpler words. Did they suggest simpler times?  

Just one year after we were introduced to hypermiling, the word that reflected the year for our society was “unfriend.” At the time, I remember being mildly horrified by the word and its place in the year-end round-up. Is this what our world had come to — this bullying coinage borne of the damnable bane of human pastime, Facebook? Today, it seems so anemic, and I consider it through a gauzy veil of nostalgia.

“Refudiate” followed that year, a coinage attributed to Sarah Palin to denote a “blend” of “refute” and “repudiate.” While she was largely lampooned for the gaffe, she joins the ranks of those who brought us mash-up words like “normalcy,” “brunch,” “impactful,” “smog,” and “motel.” 

We start to see a glimmer of the ways in which just one person in a hissy-fit of a Tweetstorm can bring about change in a language.

We also see how even a word that is uttered in one place by one person begins to shape the collective consciousness of society and attract either followers or detractors. 

In the intervening years, equally innocuous terms emerged as resonant with our society. “GIF,” “selfie,” and “vaping” were No. 1 in 2012, 2013, and 2014, respectively. So those hypermiling locavores moved from concerns of being carbon neutral to something, perhaps, beyond their proactive control.

In 2015, we were on the precipice of something headed our way. That simmering period brought us, not a word of the year, but an emoji, the one of a smiley face crying. And that somehow seems appropriate as it feels like we’re all trying to smile through the tears and whistle past the proverbial graveyard just to move through our days when things seem irrevocably broken and, well, toxic.

The 2016 words of the year from Oxford and Merriam-Webster were “post truth” and “surreal,” respectively — words that seem more synonymous than not.

The Oxford for both the U.K. and the U.S. dictionaries also shared the 2017 word, “youthquake,” the "significant, cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” While that word isn’t exactly on everyone’s lips, the selection was grimly prophetic.

Who’d know that only a couple of months later, on Valentine’s Day of 2018, the young people of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, would rock our nation with the power of their conviction to end gun violence after the massacre there that killed 17 classmates and teachers. Our children, some of them too young to vote at the time, started to do the work the rest of us can’t seem to manage because of the worst thing that ever happened to them. Youthquake. So now there is a word for what we used to consider unimaginable and nameless.   

Who’d know indeed that our collective lexicon would move from words like “democracy” and “integrity” in 2003 and 2005 to the influence of the Dictionary.com word of the year “misinformation” and the related aim of hoaxers to call these children from Parkland crisis actors?

Looking ahead, I’d lamentably wager future words of the year to be “tender age,” or “climate change” or “denier.”  The zeitgeist seems flooded with “detention center,” and “government shutdown,” and “collusion.”

Words matter. That idea gets lost, as we live in a toxic time when the leader of the country torments reporters and other politicians with schoolyard invectives and whose daily lies are well-documented. In gaslighting and other manipulations, words are also used against us and transcend simple denotative communication to larger deceits — no less real for being incredible or absurd or beyond the pale of anything any one of us has experienced before.

Language sets us apart from other species. Humans communicate and share information with words.  They are the stock in trade, not just of lexicographers, writers and teachers, but of us all.  They are the discrete units of stories. The word of the year, whatever it might be, is somehow imbued with a power to —on its own — tell society’s story for a particular year, and it isn’t always a very satisfying one.

The last few weeks of 2018 won’t do much to change the reported resonance of all that is “toxic” among us or the “misinformation” that flares out like a wildfire about everything from carbs and keto diets to Kardashians, from climate change to cover-ups and collusion. The poisonous power of fake news takes hold and infects — so much so that out of all the entries in our voluminous lexicon, that’s the pair that bubbled up to the top to represent what we’re enduring — a sickening, murky, noxious cloud.

After Jan. 1, let’s put some unscientific intention and mental muscle behind that required resonance the dictionaries look for. Let’s put out lexical vibes borne of new mantras. Let’s all say things like “compassion” and “equity” and “justice.”  Everyone start Googling “hope” or “truth” or “love” or words to that effect.

Yvette Benavides is a regular contributor and commentator for TPR. She is a professor of creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University.