2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year (WOTY)

Up until now, I’ve resisted jumping on the Word of the Year (WOTY) bandwagon. (I did come up with lists of significant words back in 2007 and 2008, but discontinued the practice.) Words of the Year have no linguistic relevance and are mostly marketing stunts pulled by the organizations that promulgate them. But I’ve noticed two problems with most of the other WOTY lists. First, they purport to come up with words or phrases to represent the entire year, but their selection is heavily weighted toward terms associated with events that occurred in October and November, within easy memory of the list compilers. Second, the lists start coming out in early November. I’m sorry, but you can’t legitimately select a WOTY when you’ve got 20% of the year yet to run. (Besides, it’s crass, like putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving.)

So for this not-quite-first-ever Wordorigins.org WOTY, I’m doing things a bit differently. I’ve selected twelve terms, one for each month. Hopefully, this list will provide something of a more chronologically balanced review of 2016. And I’m publishing this in late December, so a selection for this month is possible. The list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and now a Texan to boot), them’s the breaks.

I’m interpreting word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, and the like. The selected words are not necessarily new, but they are (mostly) associated with their respective month, either coming to widespread attention during it or associated with some event that happened then.

So without further ado, here are the 2016 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

January: Malheur. On 2 January, armed militants seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon to protest what they saw as illegal federal appropriation of land and government overreach in general. The standoff with federal law enforcement authorities lasted throughout the month, reaching a climax on 28 January with the arrest of several of the group’s leaders and the killing of one militant. Both the event and the name were foreshadowing of what would come in the ensuing year.

The name Malheur comes from French, meaning “misfortune” (literally “bad hour”). The refuge takes its name from the nearby Malheur River, which was named by French trappers in the early years of the nineteenth century.

February: Zika. On 1 February the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika virus outbreak in the Americas to be a global health emergency, and fear of the disease continued throughout the year, especially in relation to the summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro. While most of those infected suffer no or mild symptoms, Zika can cause microencephaly in fetuses and it may be able to trigger Guillain–Barré syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder, in adults. The outbreak had begun in Brazil in April 2015, and by November 2016 WHO declared the emergency to be over.

Zika gets its name from the Zika Forest in Uganda, where it was first isolated in monkeys in the 1940s. The virus was first found in humans in the 1950s and slowly spread across equatorial Africa throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Outbreaks outside of Africa began in the 2000s.

March: bathroom bill. On 23 March North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed the state’s so-called bathroom bill into law. Officially known as HB2, the law, aimed at an imagined threat from transgender people, required people to use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Coinciding with other events that raised the visibility of transgender people—the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender character on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, the Amazon TV series Transparent—HB2 created a nationwide furor in the U.S. In November McCrory would become the first North Carolina governor in over 160 years to lose a bid for re-election, due in part to the HB2 controversy, and at the end of the year the Republican-dominated legislature announced a compromise that would repeal the law. [Added March 2017: the compromise fell through and the bill was not repealed; there are various efforts to forge some sort of compromise legislation, all unsuccessful as of this date, but as this is a word blog and not a legal one, I won’t be posting updates.]

But while certainly the most famous, HB2 was hardly the first such bill. The earliest reference to bathroom bill that I have found (I suspect there are earlier ones) is actually from Canada. In March 2011 the Toronto Star used bathroom bill to refer to legislation under consideration in Ottawa that would grant transgender individuals the right to use whichever bathroom they preferred. Not only is this usage the opposite of the U.S. sense, but it uses the alliterative U.S. term bathroom instead of the more usual Canadian washroom. The term appears in the U.S. a month later in the sense we have come to know. In April 2011, the Maine legislature considered a measure that would require people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex. That bill was defeated.

(Allen, Kate. “Toronto’s Flush With Unisex Washrooms.” thestar.com, 4 March 2011; Metzler, Rebekah. “Transgender Bathroom Bill Faces Legislature.” Centralmaine.com, 13 April 2011.)

April: ASSoL. While bathroom bill was big news, the word for April was not. I chose ASSoL not because it will be permanently etched into our memories of this year—it won’t—but because it is an object lesson in taking care when naming things. Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, and in April, George Mason University in Virginia renamed its law school the Antonin Scalia School of Law. It took mere moments for wags on the internet to point out that the acronym would be ASSoL, a term that many found to be a fitting legacy for the cantankerous justice. The university quickly took to calling it the Antonin Scalia Law School, but the damage had been done.

May: unnecessariat. The term precariat was coined back in 2011 by economist Guy Standing to denote the growing class of workers who were getting by economically, but who had no job security, often working multiple, temporary gigs without medical benefits, and for whom the slightest misfortune would send them off into poverty and bankruptcy. In May 2016, blogger Anne Amnesia followed up by coining unnecessariat, the class of those who had no job and no prospects for gainful employment, as the jobs for which they have the education and skills have disappeared due to globalization and automation with the savings going to Wall Street instead of to the displaced workers. The unnecessariat is what the precariat becomes after misfortune strikes, and instead of mere bankruptcy, they face problems such as opiate addiction and a lower life expectancy. The precariat and unnecessariat, or at least the fear of joining their ranks, fueled the political candidacies of non-establishment politicians Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump throughout the year.

June: Brexit. There can be no other choice for June. I don’t think I need to explain.

July: VCR / augmented reality. I’m cheating by naming two terms for July, but they represent the end of one technological era and the beginning of another.

It may seem strange to include an obsolescent technological term in a words-of-the-year list, but the disappearance of words is just as significant as their coinage. The first citation of VCR in the OED is from forty-five years ago, and this July Funai Electronics in Japan, the last maker of home-use video-cassette recorders, ended production of the devices. The word will, of course, still be around; there are still VCRs in use and there will always be a need for historical reference to the devices, but July marked an end of an era.

The term augmented reality, meaning technology that allows people to perceive reality in a modified fashion, isn’t new either, but it came to the fore in July with the release of the smartphone game Pokémon Go. The game uses the phone’s camera to create a reality-based backdrop into which the game inserts a variety magical creatures that must be hunted and “captured.” The term augmented reality dates to at least 1992, when early forms of the technology were in use in the heads-up displays of fighter jets, but Pokémon Go is a bellwether for other consumer applications and the beginning of widespread use of the technology. We literally may never look at our world the same way again.

August: dog whistle. Literally, a dog whistle is a high-pitched whistle used in dog training that humans cannot hear but dogs can. But in political parlance the term is used metaphorically to refer to a message that, while seemingly innocuous to the general population, has a particular encoded relevance to a particular group. The OED dates this political sense to 1995. The reason for selecting this term as the WOTY for August is a statement made by Donald Trump at a political rally on 9 August. Speaking about gun control and possible restrictions on gun ownership if Hillary Clinton were elected, Trump said, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” On the surface, the reference to “Second Amendment people” sounded as if he were calling for gun owners to vote against Clinton, but many interpreted the statement as a dog whistle calling for her assassination, an example of how extreme American political rhetoric became in 2016.

September: Aleppo. Before the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, Aleppo was the largest city in that country. Fighting in the city broke out in July 2012 and steadily grew in intensity, resulting in its destruction and a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis. In September 2016 Syrian government forces launched an offensive to retake the rebel-controlled portions of city and by the end of the year had all but driven the rebels from the city, decimating the civilian population in the process. September was also the month when Libertarian U.S. presidential candidate Gary Johnson responded to a reporter’s question about the situation in the city with, “what is Aleppo?” Prior to this stunning display of ignorance, Johnson and the Libertarians, although without any real chance of winning the election, were seen by many as a principled alternative to the two unpopular major-party candidates. But Johnson’s response turned him and his candidacy into a joke. On a broader canvas, Johnson’s response to the question can be depicted as representative of the American public’s attitudes toward and ignorance of events in the rest of the world.

October: bigly / big league. People have been commenting on this particular Trumpism since he began his candidacy last year, but media commentary on his usage came to head in October. Donald Trump is fond of using the adverbial big league to refer to something done on a large scale or in an extreme way, but his stress on the first syllable causes many to interpret what he is saying as bigly. Runner up for the October word is another Trumpism, his infamous grab her by the pussy comment, which featured bigly that month, but I decided to go with the more linguistically interesting and less crude choice.

Big league comes to us via baseball, originally a reference to the two major leagues (1882), with the figurative meaning dating to 1917. The adverb bigly, on the other hand, has been around since the fourteenth century, but it isn’t very common, hence people noticed and commented on it.

November: fake news. In what may be the year’s biggest case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, following the election the mainstream media suddenly discovered the existence of fake news sites and started to gauge the impact they had on the presidential race. Melissa Zimdars, a communications professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts had prepared a list of questionable news sources for her students which went viral in November, giving media outlets the opportunity to run a flurry of stories about the topic before the next shiny object caught their attention. Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms dutifully pledged to tweak their algorithms to make it harder for fake news stories to gain traction, but since their revenue models rely on such clickbait, it’s hard to believe that anything substantive will be done about the problem.

December: fentanyl. On 15 December 2016 thirteen people died of overdoses in Vancouver, British Columbia. As of the end of November, 160 people had died in that city in 2016, and the province as a whole was on track for 750 overdose deaths for the year. The opioid fentanyl, named by its inventor Paul Janssen in 1963, was responsible for the majority of these deaths. The drug also claimed the life of the musician Prince in April. The media began paying attention to opiate addiction in North America during 2016, but the problem has been increasing for the last decade, with the crisis affecting non-urban, white communities more than previous drug epidemics, starting in poorer communities in Appalachia and the Southwest and climbing the income ladder as the years progressed. The drug epidemic was one of the sub rosa factors fueling white America’s discontent with the political process, leading to the election of Trump.

Bonus word: woke. I’m including a thirteenth word, making the list a baker’s dozen, that isn’t especially associated with any particular month but which is an important word that resonated with events throughout the year. Woke is an African-American slang term meaning to be aware, especially to be aware of racism and other social injustices. The word is often associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The word dates back to at least 2008, when it appears in the R&B/rap song Master Teacher by Erykah Badu:

Even if yo baby ain’t got no money
To support ya baby, you
(I stay woke)
Even when the preacher tell you some lies
And cheatin on ya mama, you stay woke
(I stay woke)
Even though you go through struggle and strife
To keep a healthy life, I stay woke
(I stay woke)
Everybody knows a black or white, there’s
Creatures in every shape and size
(I stay woke)

While it’s been around for while, woke only came to the attention of mainstream (i.e., white) culture in 2016.

Honorable Mentions

These are words that I considered, but that didn’t make the list for various reasons, often because they were close to another word that did make the list or that I just couldn’t find one particular month to associate them with.

alt right
open carry
stochastic terrorism

So there you have it. This list is hardly comprehensive. There are a lot of other words and phrases which were important during the year, but I hope the list generates some reflection on how our language works and on the events of 2016 and in some small way spurs us to make 2017 a better one.

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