Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Word of 2017? Bet you can't pick just one -- Dec. 21, 2017 column


It’s not easy to summarize a year in a single word, especially a year as tumultuous and polarized as this one.

Maybe that’s why lexicographers’ choices for the Word of the Year 2017 all have a political hue.

Collins Dictionary chose one of President Donald Trump’s favorites -- “fake news” -- as its word for 2017. Definition: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news.”

Merriam-Webster picked “feminism.” You’d think everybody would know it means “the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes” and “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

But when Merriam-Webster analyzed “lookups” of words online to gauge public interest, feminism was a top lookup of the year, first spiking after the Women’s March on Washington in January. As discussions of feminism evolved with the news, interest in the word kept spiking, the dictionary said. went for “complicit” after lookups surged following a Saturday Night Live parody commercial featuring Scarlett Johansson as a sultry Ivanka Trump. The fake ad was for “Complicit,” “the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this . . . but won’t.”

Lookups of complicit surged again after Trump said she didn’t know what it meant to be complicit.

The esteemed Oxford Dictionaries chose “youthquake,” a 1965 creation repurposed to reflect the significant influence of young voters in the UK’s snap election last June.

“It is a rare political word that sounds a hopeful note,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of the dictionaries of the Oxford University Press, although he acknowledged: “It’s true that it’s yet to land firmly on American soil but strong evidence in the UK calls it out as a word on the move.”    

Talking about words on the move, where’s covfefe when we need it?

Covfefe epitomized President Donald Trump and his tweet machine. It’s a made-up word he used in a truncated tweet a little after midnight on May 31: “Despite the constant negative press covfefe” 

The tweet was later deleted, but then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in an explanation worthy of the Alice in Wonderland School of Spin, told reporters, “The president and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

Instead of trying to settle on one Word of the Year, perhaps we should think of 2017 as the Year of Words. Plural.

No president ever word-bombed the nation the way Trump does, instantly sharing his mood swings with the masses.  

Trump weaponized words, but he wasn’t the only one. North Korea President Kim Jong Un must have been thumbing through an old thesaurus when he called Trump “a mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” A dotard is someone who’s elderly and senile. 

The year began with Trump’s dystopian vision of America. Inaugural addresses typically play to the nation’s hopes and dreams; his stoked fears with words like  “carnage.”  

The new administration delivered “alternative facts,” White House aide Kellyanne Conway’s infelicitous phrase for Spicer’s lies about the size of the crowd at the inauguration.

The year is ending with the administration denying a Washington Post report that the Department of Health and Human Services had banned the Centers for Disease Control from using seven words in its 2019 budget request. The words are: diversity, 
entitlement, evidence-based, fetus, science-based, transgender and vulnerable.

HHS strenuously denied the prohibition, and CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted, “I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC.”

An analysis by Science Insider, though, found the words already had been used far less in CDC’s 2018 budget request earlier this year than in the three previous Obama CDC requests.

The New York Times subsequently reported it wasn’t a ban so much as a recommendation to avoid language that might slow or derail approval of the budget by Republicans. So it appears red-flag words were banned as a political strategy.   

A firestorm ensued, of course, as free speech still matters.

The American Dialect Society, a group of linguists and other academics, will vote for its Word of the Year Jan. 5.

It would be nice to think its word describing this rancorous year could be hopeful for the future.

But that’s unlikely. Its choice last year was more prophetic than anyone thought. Remember “dumpster fire”?

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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