2017 Words of the Year (WOTY)

As I did last year, and on occasion before that, I’ve come up with a list of words of the year. I do things a bit differently than other such lists in that I select twelve terms, one for each month. Since similar lists often exhibit a bias toward words that were in vogue at the end of the year when the list was compiled, my hope is that a monthly list will highlight words that were significant earlier in the year. The list is skewed by an American perspective, but since I’m American (and a Texan to boot), them’s the breaks.

I’m interpreting word loosely, including phrases, abbreviations, hashtags, 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, here are the 2017 Wordorigins.org Words of the Year:

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January: alternative facts. On 22 January, two days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway used alternative facts in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press to describe Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s repeating Donald Trump’s lies about the audience at the inauguration. The internet and cable TV news exploded at Conway’s use of the phrase, and the phrase went on to be emblematic of the administration’s approach to the truth.

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February: deep state. The term deep state goes back to at least 2000, where it was used to refer to the national security and police bureaucracies in Turkey that wielded enormous clandestine power. In the opening months of the Trump presidency, the term began to be applied to the United States, particularly those parts of the bureaucracy that the Trump administration believed, rightly or wrongly, to be resisting them.

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March: originalism. On March 20 the Senate began hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U. S. Supreme Court. Gorsuch was approved and took his seat on the bench in April. Gorsuch, like his predecessor Antonin Scalia, is a follower of the doctrine of originalism, the principle that the founders’ intent is the overriding factor in interpreting the constitution. The doctrine is a relatively new and radical one, with the OED dating the term to only 1980.

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April: re-accommodate. United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz used this word as a euphemism for forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight.

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May: covfefe. Earlier in May, Donald Trump claimed that he had coined the phrase prime the pump (which dates to 1916 in the metaphorical, economic sense, and is even older in the literal, mechanical sense), but on 31 May he did coin covfefe in a tweet sent out just after midnight (“Despite the constant negative press covfefe”). While apparently just a misspelling of coverage, the internet exploded with speculation, some serious, much jocular, about just what covfefe might mean. In and of itself, covfefe would not be worthy of mention, but it is emblematic of Trump’s tweeting, which has dominated the news all year.

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June: slant. On June 19, the US Supreme Court delivered an 8–0 opinion in Matel v. Tam, which declared that the laws allowing the US Patent and Trademark Office to reject trademarks that “disparage” persons, institutions, and beliefs were unconstitutional. The USPTO had previously rejected the trademark for the Asian-American band, The Slants, led by front man Simon Tam, for being disparaging to Asians. Tam had chosen the name, in part, in an effort to reclaim and meliorate the term. The court’s decision seemingly will permit people and corporations to register other ethnic slurs as trademarks, although the full effect is still unclear. The highest profile beneficiary of the decision is the NFL’s Washington Redskins, which had previously had its trademark status revoked for being disparaging to Native Americans.

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July: collusion. Use of the word collusion had been bubbling up all along in regard to possible collaboration between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia in getting Trump elected, but it boiled over in July with the release of an email conversation between Donald Trump, Jr., other campaign officials, and agents for Russia which set up a meeting between Trump campaign officials and agents of the Russian government about material that was damaging to Hillary Clinton.

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August: totality. August was a tough choice. The white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, dead and dozens more injured dominated the news, spawning many possible terms (see Antifa in Honorable Mention). But the month also hosted a solar eclipse on 21 August which could be seen from almost anywhere in North America and whose region of totality cut across the continental United States.

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September: hurricane. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on 26 August, inundating the city of Houston before moving on to Louisiana, causing 91 deaths, and becoming the costliest storm in history. Hurricane Irma, a category five storm and the strongest Atlantic tropical cyclone on record, tore through the eastern Caribbean, essentially destroying the islands of Barbuda and Saint Martin, and made landfall in the Florida Keys on 10 September, before moving up the west coast of that state. Those were followed by Hurricane Maria, which reached category five status on 18 September and then slammed into Dominica and Puerto Rico, causing catastrophic damage. Maria was the deadliest storm of the season, causing at least 547 deaths.

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October: gravitational wave. The 2017 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to the team that confirmed the existence of gravitational waves. Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip Thorne were awarded the prize for their discovery of the waves back in 2015 using LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Einstein had predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his 1915 theory of general relativity, but it took a century for technology catch up and actually detect them. The gravitational waves that were observed had been created by the merger of two black holes. And on 16 October the LIGO observatory announced another detection of gravitational waves, this time created by the merger of two neutron stars.

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November: #metoo. Following the public allegations of dozens of cases of sexual assault and harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, hundreds of thousands of women took to the internet telling of their own experiences being harassed using the hashtag #metoo. The hashtag had been coined and used by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006. Following the Weinstein revelation, a string of celebrities and politicians have been fired or forced to resign due to past sexual assault, harassment, and mistreatment of women.

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December: wildfire. On 4 December, the Thomas wildfire started in this hills above Santa Barbara, California. The Thomas fire is the largest in the state’s history, and as of this writing (23 December), it has burned over 273,000 acres (110,000 hectares) and is only 65% contained. While wildfires are an annual occurrence in California, 2017 is the worst fire season on record, with 8,778 fires so far and over 1,370,000 acres (554,000 hectares) burned.

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Honorable Mention: The honorable mentions are terms that rose to prominence during the year but were either not associated with a particular month or which lost out to another term.

  • Antifa, a loose confederation of anti-fascist groups in the United States who stage counterprotests to fascist and white supremacist demonstrations and are often prepared to use violence to quash fascist demonstrations if necessary
  • carnage, a word much used in Trump’s inaugural address on 20 January
  • cladding, a term for the exterior covering a building, a factor in the Grenfell Tower fire in West London on 14 June in which 71 people died
  • dreamer, a term for undocumented immigrants to the United States who were brought into the country as children, after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, first proposed in Congress in 2009, but never passed; President Obama had used executive orders to implement the provisions of the act, which allowed a subset of those minors to remain in the United States; the Trump administration reversed that action in September
  • emolument, an archaic word for payment; the US Constitution forbids the president from accepting emoluments from the states or from foreign governments, and there is some debate as to whether Trump’s business interests are in violation of that clause
  • extreme vetting, a term used by the Trump administration to refer to more rigorous screening of immigrants to the US
  • Nevertheless, she persisted, a phrase used by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on 7 February in reference to Elizabeth Warren’s reading of a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King arguing against the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench, a reading that was objected to as violating Senate rules; the phrase subsequently became a feminist slogan
  • subtweeting, the practice of tweeting about someone or something without directly referencing them
  • take a knee, NFL players took to going down on one knee during the national anthem to protest unequal treatment of African-Americans by police

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