Every year I look forward to finding out what words will be singled out as especially important or noteworthy for the preceding year. This year, though, I approached this subject with special trepidation: given the events of 2019—over 40 mass murder “events” that killed 211 people, the highest on record; temperatures warming much faster than anticipated; lies and misinformation pouring out via presidential tweets; “natural” disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and polar vortexes multiplying; and news cycles reeling from one crisis to another—well, I just couldn’t imagine what the word of this year could possibly be. So many candidates, so little time.
Indeed, several sources named words of the year related to these circumstances. Oxford dubbed “climate emergency” its word (or phrase) of the year, denoting “a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and potentially irreversible environmental damage,” and underscoring Time magazine’s choice of Greta Thunberg as their Person of the Year and highlighting the youth movement she has inspired. Surely their work will grow more urgent and more important in 2020; Oxford notes that this phrase rose from “relative obscurity” to become one of the most prominent terms of 2019 and one of the most often searched for online. Dictionary.com announced that “existential” was its word of the year, noting the ubiquity of the word not only in political news but also in popular culture, such as Toy Story 4, in which Forky faces an existential crisis in terms of his identity as a toy (or not).
These words and phrases all reflect the crisis-driven 365 days of 2019. And they are all well taken, and well argued for. But Merriam-Webster took a somewhat different tack, choosing “they”—used to refer to persons whose gender identity is nonbinary—as their word of the year. Noting that searches for “they” increased by 313 percent in 2019 over the previous year, the dictionary went to say that “English famously lacks a gender neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone, and as a consequence “they” has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.” So singular “they” enters the dictionaries, along with “themself.” About time.
Of course, this word of the year also has big political implications since it signals approval of greater inclusivity and tolerance and empathy; it’s not likely to be applauded, much less accepted, by Trump’s base, though. But it is a big step forward anyway, in this 600-year-old search for a path beyond the he/she binary. Good choice, Merriam-Webster!
Which word of the year do you like best? Do you have a different word (or phrase) that you think should be word of the year? And more importantly, what do your students think? Asking our students to analyze and evaluate the chosen words and then to suggest words of their own is always a great writing prompt or discussion starter for the beginning of the semester. If you do this activity, I’d love to hear what your students come up with!