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Oxford, Dictionary.com select their "Words of the Year." Hint: think politics.

Dec 20, 2016

So many words, so little time.
Credit Katia Strieck / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

Is it possible to choose a single word that captures the tumultuous and often bizarre year that was 2016?

Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop major dictionaries like Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com from trying.

They have all released their selections for 2016’s “Word of the Year” and the results are not exactly uplifting. 

The Oxford English Dictionary, which has been in the word business for well over 100 years, chose post-truth as their top word for 2016.

Oxford defines post-truth, an adjective, as follows: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

So why is 2016 the year of post-truth?

According to Oxford:

“The term has moved from being relatively new to being widely understood in the course of a year.”

They cited political events in the United Kingdom and the United States as the primary explanation for the word’s sudden prominence.

In selecting post-truth for 2016, Oxford broke its streak of selecting nouns favored by the millennial generation. Its past four words of the year have been (working backwards from 2015) emoji, vape, selfie, and GIF.

How times have changed.

Like Oxford, the other dictionaries chose words that in one way or another reflected the political and social turmoil of 2016. Dictionary.com’s word was xenophobia, while Merriam-Webster came up with surreal.

How do these organizations settle on a single word to capture the essence of an entire year?

According to Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan and the co-host of That’s What They Say, there are a number of elements to the decision, including the frequency of online searches.

"They are looking at frequency, what words are getting looked up."

“It is chosen by the editorial staff,” she told us. “They are looking at frequency, what words are getting looked up, where are there particular spikes [in searches]. Because there are some words that get looked up a lot, but they always get looked up a lot, and then you’ll see spikes on particular words.”

Curzan said that this tradition began with the American Dialect Society (of which she is a part). Inspired by People Magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the ADS began choosing a word of the year back in the 1990s. Past words have included metrosexual (2003), truthiness (2005), occupy (2011) and hashtag (2012).

Although it is now accepting nominations for a 2016 word of the year, the ADS will wait until the first week of January to make a final decision. This is because, as Curzan put it, “you never know what could happen linguistically in December.”

Listen to our full interview with Anne Curzan above.

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