Every year the major dictionary publishers produce their ‘words of the year’. Some of the words for 2018 were:
- Oxford Word of the Year 2018: toxic
- Collins Word of the Year 2018: single-use
- Merriam-Webster Word of the Year 2018: justice
- com’s Word of the Year 2018: misinformation
- Cambridge Dictionary Word of the Year 2018: nomophobia
These sources use different methods for identifying their ‘word of the year’. Cambridge asks readers to vote for their favourite: readers rejected gender gap, ecocide and no-platforming in favour of nomophobia (a fear of being without your mobile phone, since you ask). Merriam-Webster uses increases in frequency and tracks words that spike at various times of the year in response to news events: respect, maverick and excelsior were frequent following the deaths of Aretha Franklin, John McCain and Stan Lee respectively, for example. Across the year, though, justice was the most consistently spiking word. Often a mixture of frequency and human judgement is used to identify the word. Oxford state that their WotY is: ‘a word or expression that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance’.
The word nomophobia is perhaps the most inventive of the group – a blend of ‘no’ + ‘mo(bile)’ + ‘phobia’. Its ranking as the ‘people’s choice’ reflects the importance of personal concerns over political ones, and an awareness of a worrying individual dependency on technology (leading possibly to techlash – a word that made Oxford’s shortlist).
Single-use, as in single-use plastic, means ‘something made to be used once only and then discarded’. As often happens when a concept that has long existed suddenly becomes a topic of general discussion, the longer formulation using a postmodifier is replaced by a shorter, pre-modifier form.
Toxic and justice are perhaps surprising choices because they are not new words. Rather it is the variation in their use that makes them both frequent and indicative of a zeitgeist. According to Oxford Dictionaries, toxic collocates with physical entities – chemical, substance, gas, algae, air – but also with abstract ones – masculinity, environment, relationship, culture. 2018 saw news items about nerve agents (toxic substances), pollution (toxic chemicals, toxic waste), and about a growing awareness of the harm that can be done by cultural practices that go unchallenged (toxic environment, toxic masculinity). The word justice, chosen by the US Merriam-Webster and discussed by editor Peter Sokowski on WGBH radio, has a similarly broad sweep of collocates and meanings, including racial justice, social justice, obstruction of justice and ‘member of the Supreme Court’. The range of news stories indicated by these phrases kept the word itself in prominence during 2018.
My own personal words of 2018 are rather different: they are back and again. As in ‘take back control’ and, of course, ‘make America great again’. They are classic ‘weasel words’ as they imply a great deal while being ordinary enough to be overlooked, so they can be used to smuggle attitudes into a discourse without challenge. Both are part of the mythology of populist discourse, implying a prior golden age which has unaccountably been lost but which with the right political action can be regained. That mythology permeates both the pro-Brexit stance and Donald Trump’s vision for America and is classic misinformation.