By MARSHA MERCER
As 2018 heads for the exits – finally -- the annual exercise to wrap up the year in a single word is in full swing.
The estimable Oxford Dictionaries says it selects for its Word of the Year one that reflects “the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the year and may be of lasting cultural significance. Oxford chose “toxic” for 2018.
Toxic is defined as poisonous. Not bad.
Toxic certainly was an improvement over Oxford’s resurrection in 2017 of the 1960s word “youthquake,” intended to show the power of the youth vote in Britain last year.
For its 2018 Word of the Year, Collins Dictionary chose “single-use,” which describes plastic bags and other items meant to be used once that are hurting the environment.
That’s fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go very far.
Merriam-Webster chose “justice” to define 2018, saying the word was searched 74 percent more in 2018 than in 2017. That’s puzzling. It seems a good sign that people want to understand what justice means – but not if they think a dictionary definition will suffice.
Dictionary.com settled for 2018 on “misinformation” -- defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.”
People often conflate misinformation with “disinformation,” Dictionary.com said, but disinformation means “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”
A worthwhile distinction, but it still leaves something lacking to capture this tumultuous year.
For me, none of those words sums 2018 the way a simple four-letter word does.
That word is “wall.”
President Donald Trump’s wall has become the defiant symbol of his America first and only, us-against-the-world presidency.
He proudly shut down the federal government just before Christmas to try to force Congress to give him billions to build a wall on the southern border.
We’ve been hearing so much from him about the need for a wall to protect us from the others that many younger Americans may not know a Republican president once urged the leader of the Soviet Union to tear down a wall.
But Ronald Reagan was the president who in 1987 demanded Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall that separated East and West Germany.
Trump claims -- falsely -- Reagan wanted a wall on our southern border for eight years.
In fact, Reagan said during a 1980 presidential candidates’ debate: “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit.”
And then Reagan added: “While they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here. And when they want to go back they can go back.” Candidate Reagan, by the way, also called for statehood for Puerto Rico.
Contrast that with the harsh rhetoric presidential candidate Trump used about immigrants and his repeated promise to build a border wall to protect us and make Mexico pay for it.
Tearing down the Berlin wall was a symbol of Reagan’s presidency just as the border wall is the enduring symbol of Trump’s.
As the year ends, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are idle because the president and the Congress can’t agree on how much taxpayers should pay to build the wall Mexico refuses to pay for.
But what’s in a wall? Aware Democrats won’t go for the big, “beautiful” concrete wall he first promised, Trump lately has shifted to talk about a “steel slats” barrier you can see through.
Beyond the border wall are the metaphoric walls that separate the president from many Americans and many Americans from each other. We almost instinctively wall ourselves off from those who hold different political views, watch different news shows and read different news sites.
Doubtlessly, the Russians and the Chinese have worked to sow dissension among us, to further wall us off from each other, with the goal of making the United States less united, more divided and weaker.
If Reagan were president, he might say to us: Tear down these walls.
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.