What's Your Word of the Year?

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In the era of Trump double- (and triple-) speak, it may seem that words are cheap, that the whole notion of truth has been called into question. In such a time, it’s more important than ever that teachers of writing work hard to show that words matter and that they have power—often very great power—for good or for evil. The barrage of Russian bots that spread misinformation and outright lies during and after the 2016 election is a good case in point of how words can work very effectively—for ill.


I often like to open the second term with a meditation on words, going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and their views on how words can be actions, can do things, and can make things happen. And that brings us, often, to the word of the year. For 2017, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg chooses “tribe,” “tribal,” and “tribalism” as his word(s) of the year:

There's virtually no phenomenon in public life that someone hasn't tried to discredit as tribal. A writer in National Review blames left tribalism for creating the myth of "rape culture"; Sen. Jeff Flake says it's political tribalism for Republicans to support Roy Moore. Business consultants argue that it's the tribalism of corporate white males that keeps women and minorities out of the executive suite, but Andrew Sullivan sees feminist tribalism behind Google's efforts to hire more women engineers. The Guardian's John Abraham writes that the Republicans' tribalism has led them to deny human-caused climate change. But according to The Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins, it's the tribalism of progressives that leads them to refuse to debate the question.

Nunberg goes on to say that this series of back-and-forth accusations is “maddening,” and a symbol of the deep fragmentations of our society which refuse to recognize the other side’s validity: “That's what it means to say that America has become tribal in the first place, and one sign of that is that we can't agree on how to use the word.”

It’s also a sign that the word “tribal” is exerting serious power in our world, no matter who uses it.


Dictionary.com dubs “complicit” its word of the year due to the huge number of lookups of the word between March and October 2017. Many looked it up because they wanted to understand what it meant when SNL featured a spoof on so-called Complicit perfume or when Ivanka Trump insisted that she didn’t “know what it meant to be complicit.”


Merriam Webster chose “feminism,” saying that this word was its top lookup of 2017 and citing the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration and the debate over whether it was a “feminist” march or not. They also cited the huge influence of the #MeToo movement and the critical and cultural success of the television version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the movie version of Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot.


Finally, the Oxford English Dictionary went back to a term coined by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in 1965: youthquake, which they define as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from actions or influences of young people.” Citing the youth-driven elections in New Zealand and the UK along with the #MeToo movement as evidence of youthquakes, Oxford also considered “antifa,” “broflake,” “newsjacking,” “Maybot,” and “Bitcoin.”


The American Dialect Society has yet to release its word of the year, and there are no doubt many others out there for the finding. All of these words and their definitions—and conflict over those definitions—make for excellent discussion in the classroom in preparation for students to determine their own words of the year. I often ask students to come up with their own personal word of the year and write a brief definition of the word along with evidence that supports their choice. Inevitably, some students choose the same word while others bring in outliers, words no one else thought of as “word of the year” material. We can then move to an analysis of what makes a word worthy of this notation, drawing up criteria and debating them rigorously. Eventually, we try for consensus: our class’s word of the year. A couple of times we have had such enthusiastic discussions that the class decided to write an editorial for the student newspaper putting forward their word of the year for the campus to consider. That’s one more way to demonstrate to students that their words matter!


What is your word of the year? Leave a comment below!


Credit: Pixaby Image 1615793 by Wokandapix, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.